Bad enough the SMH iPad app is just a PDF, forcing a print subscription is insane

So yesterday Fairfax launched its Sydney Morning Herald iPad app. The strategy – designed to shore up print – and the execution – already derided by users as a “glorifed PDF reader” – are both laughable.

If there were ever doubts that Fairfax is two companies pulling in different directions, then the handling of the iPad app dispels them.  

SMH_Smart_Edition_mumbrellaPromoted by the print division rather than by Fairfax Digital, it’s already been slammed by iTunes users with the average review 1.5 stars out of five.

We’ll come to grips with their gripes about the functionality in a moment.

Let’s start instead with the dumb pricing structure of the so-called Herald Smart Edition.

Here’s how they explain it in their press release:

Fairfax Media has devised an innovative pricing model for this Herald Smart Edition app.

Subscribers to the Herald’s annual seven-day print subscription can access the app free of charge. Weekend print subscribers can access the app by upgrading to a new “Weekender” package, which costs $205 per annum and includes three days of newspaper delivery each week. Subscribers simply register through the iPad app to access the electronic edition.

New customers in New South Wales and ACT can access the app by purchasing a Weekender subscription, which includes three days of newspaper home delivery over the weekend and seven days of Smart Edition access. The weekender subscription is priced at $205 upfront for one year, or $18 every four weeks through automated direct debit payments.

New customers in states other than New South Wales and ACT can purchase a subscription to the electronic edition for the same prices: $205 upfront for one year, or $18 every four weeks.

The international electronic edition can be purchased outside Australia for $52 per annum.

Well that certainly is innovative.

When I saw this announcement on Thursday, I initially missed the most important point. If you’re in the SMH’s home state or Canberra, the only way you can get hold of the iPad app is to subscribe to the print edition.

Let me just run that one past you again – read this next sentence carefully. If you’re in New South Wales or ACT, the only way you can get hold of the iPad app is to subscribe to the print edition.

No doubt Fairfax would claim this is in response to some spurious insight that shows they’ve discovered a group of readers with busy on-the-go lifestyles during the week who want nothing more than to lock their shiny new iPad in the cupboard at the weekend and revert to newspapers. (Or as they put it: “gives you print delivery on the days you have time to stop and enjoy, and the electronic edition on the iPad or computer for the days when you’re on the go”.)

smh_complimentary_accessOf course, it’s not. It’s about using the iPad app as a way of shoring up plummeting print circulations. This is all about Fairfax being able to present its iPad subscribers to the Audit Bureau of Circulations as full price print subscribers who happen to be getting a “complimentary” copy of the app. Check out the language on its website.

Do you think those who subscribe will really be as committed print readers as, you know, real print readers? That’s what Fairfax will want their ABC certificate to suggest and that’s what they will want media agencies booking advertising into the print edition to think.

Issues like this suggest that the divide between the two parts of Fairfax urgently needs to be fixed. Rune-readers think that crossroads is coming.

In these attempts to grab just a few more print readers, Fairfax risks alienating those precious potential new iPad customers with its bizarre pricing tiers in one of several ways:

  • If I happened to already be an occasional reader of the print edition tempted to get the iPad app, that prescriptive you-must-subscribe approach is going to piss me off. (There’s so much other ground to cover that we might as well leave alone for today the bizarre fact that the so-called “Weekender” package lasts three days.)
  • If I only want an app edition, that approach is going to piss me off too, as it will feel as if I’m being forced to buy something I do not want. Inevitably I’ll wait until the app-only price arrives, which I’ll now expect to be cheaper than the bundled price.
  • And if I’m a potential subscriber to the iPad app in another state, knowing that I’m paying precisely the same as those in NSW who are also getting the print edition is going to piss me off.
  • I’d be even more outraged when I learn that those overseas are able to get it at the quarter of the price. Still, like most expats (of which Australia has quite a few by the way), I’ve still got a British credit card and IP addresses are easy to cloak.

(What could be seen as an attempt to game the audit numbers also says something about how newspaper publishers have lost confidence to the point where every move is a defensive one, by the way. Newspapers are still many consumers’ – myself included, as it happens – favourite medium. Rather than celebrating its strengths, too much effort has been put into smoke and mirrors. Self-serving surveys from Newspaper Works, shenanigans with weekend holiday editions being wrapped up as if they are one for audit purposes, implausible claims about why readership is down leave the newspaper industry – and Fairfax in particular – look constantly on the defensive. The less transparently it behaves the less credible the medium’s genuine positives seem.)

And what of the product itself? Fairfax boss Brian McCarthy was less than convincing when interviewed about it last month, making non-credible claims that would have seen Fairfax start work on the iPad app months before Apple even confirmed it was going to release a tablet device.

But if he was to be believed, the end result should be wonderful. According to the release: “Features unique to the electronic edition include easy zooming in and out, scrolling, clicking on a story to read in text form only if preferred, and click-on headlines to highlight individual stories.”

Wow. Zooming! Scrolling! Clicking! Innovative stuff, if PDFs hadn’t been invented in 1993. The paper is attempting to make a virtue out of delivering the paper “exactly as it was printed”.

But of the first 258 reader ratings, 205 have given it the lowest possible rating of one star out of five.

smh_ipad_itunes_ratings mumbrella

Bearing in mind that this is the SMH’s free trial version, suddenly The Australian’s 2.5 star average (or three for its latest update) for its $4.99 version is looking spectacular.

Comments have included:

“I was soooo looking forward this app, but I am just disappointed. It is messy and complicated to download with all the various sections and it just does not come up well on screen. Frankly I prefer the website…”

“The app information suggests I need to also subscribe to the print edition. Am I understanding this correctly? Why would I want a hard copy of the paper?”

“You – staggeringly – have to subscribe to the print version!”

“The Australian has had a dismal attempt at this and I almost put the SMH in the same category.”

“better to have released nothing than to release this awkward cash-in.”

“OK it is just PDFs with click throughs but it does what it says on the can.”

“This is an appalling piece of software, apart from crashes it is just a glorified PDF reader. Whoever coded this is a ham. Dreadful!”

“Without a doubt the worst app I have ever used. Clunky and not intuitive. This one should be withdrawn until they get it right. Shame on you Fairfax. I expected so  much better.”

Clearly, iPad subscribers don’t want the print edition. I’m sure that soon enough (as Gizmodo predicts) the SMH will give in on that point. By that point, the market will be thoroughly confused.

However, I’ll let CEO Brian McCarthy have the final word. After you read these comments from the press release, you may wish to pause and hold a moment’s silence for his departed sense of reality:

“This app, with others that follow, will clearly demonstrate that Fairfax is at the forefront of innovation.”

Tim Burrowes


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