How paywalls give local TV stations a mobile advantage: a Sacramento case study

By Cory Bergman 

As a former Sacramento resident who lives in Seattle, naturally I’m interested in what happens with the struggle over the Sacramento Kings. Since I consume most of my news on mobile, I decided to download an iPhone app from the Sacramento Bee to complement the coverage on Twitter.

Much to my surprise, I discovered the Sacramento Bee app only has a one star review. It’s not very often you find an app with that low of a rating, and after browsing the comments, most of the negative reviews centered on Sac Bee’s paywall. According to the Bee’s FAQ, the paywall hits after viewing 60 pages on the iPhone, which doesn’t take long when using a news app.

Regardless, what matters here is a one-star rating is essentially a dead app. Very few people download apps with such a low rating — usually one-star reviews are reserved for apps that crash. Out of curiosity, I looked up the Sacramento Bee iPhone app’s ranking, and it hit a high of #354 among news apps this week. It was last updated in October, which is a dreadfully long time between updates, especially when the app is getting killed in reviews.

After seeing several reviews on the Sacramento Bee app that recommended KCRA’s app — and I used to work for the TV station a long time ago — I searched for KCRA and discovered it carries a 4-star rating with an update as recent as March. A quick check reveals it ranked as high as #111 this week, which means its being downloaded at higher rate.

Over on iPad, it’s a similar story. The Bee launched a brand new iPad app in February (its old app was a paid e-edition), and it has a 2-star rating and only 9 reviews. KCRA’s iPad app has a 4.5-star rating and mostly glowing comments. Both are ranked relatively the same over the last week, but all indications are that KCRA has racked up more downloads over its free app’s life (it launched over a year ago.)

To make matters worse, if you Google “Sacramento Bee apps” (or click “mobile” in the Sacramento Bee’s footer), it takes you to a page that doesn’t even promote its iPad app. And worse yet: search for “Sacramento news” in the App Store and KCRA is the first result. The Bee is #5 for the iPhone and #3 for iPad. On Google Play, KCRA is #1, too. And just plain Googling “Sacramento news apps” shows KCRA at the top once again.

On Android, the situation is slightly better for the Bee. It has a 3.2 rating to KCRA’s 3.5, but KCRA has logged more cumulative downloads (“50,000 to 100,000”) than the Bee (“10,000 to 50,000”), according to Google Play.

Product-wise, both KCRA and the Bee’s apps aren’t that far apart, and that’s part of the problem. If you read the negative reviews, people expect more for content that costs money. KCRA is a strong-enough competitor, and its free apps are viewed as superior when compared to a similar product that requires registration and a monthly fee. Coverage-wise, the Bee has a wider selection of stories with more in-depth reporting, but that’s not always an advantage — especially on phones. And KCRA’s ability to offer video and rich weather coverage on its iPad app offsets the Bee’s long-form tablet advantage.

Now, I don’t have mobile web numbers comparing the two news organizations, but most news organizations report about a 50:50 split between web and app consumption. Consumers, meanwhile, prefer apps over the web generally, spending 80% of their time inside apps compared to 20% on a browser. By any measure, the Bee has punted on a big chunk of its of mobile audience, and that’s dangerous.

“The reason to worry about paywalls is that they severely limit the prospects of developing a wider audience for newspapers at a time publishers need – more than ever – to attract readers among the digitally native generations that represent a growing proportion of the adult population,” explains Alan Mutter in a blog post this week. “In a word, publishers need to think mobile. And fast.”

I’m not trying to beat up on the Bee here — I was a loyal subscriber when I lived there in the 90s — but this is a great example of how solid free apps by a strong, coverage-minded local TV station can outperform a regional newspaper’s mobile efforts. As I wrote for Poynter a couple months ago, mobile will disrupt journalism like the Internet did a decade ago. Monetization is still a struggle, but the first step is competing on audience and making consumers happy. So far, KCRA is winning the battle on the platform that will matter the most.

(Have you registered for Lost Remote’s first conference? The Lost Remote Show will convene top social TV execs in NYC on April 24th. Hope to see you there!)