Five Tips for Developing New Digital Products: Lessons from the O.C. Register's Now-Defunct Peel App

Article excerpt

When the iPad debuted in 2010, I began urging newspaper publishers to defend and extend their franchises by developing innovative products to attract new audiences and new revenues on this transformational platform. But I always got the same question: Who else is doing it?

For a year, I didn't have a good answer, because publishers either ignored the most rapidly adopted electronics product in history--now owned by roughly a quarter of the population, according to the Pew Research Center--or slapped together retro renditions of their websites or print products for this state-of-the-art environment.

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A miracle occurred in spring 2011, when The Orange County Register introduced a spritely, purpose-built app called The Peel that, exercising the full multimedia and interactive capabilities of the iPad, was explicitly designed to be as un-newspapery as possible.

The miracle was short-lived. A little more than a year after it was launched, the Peel was killed when the newspaper changed hands, and the new owners throttled back most of their digital initiatives to double down on print.

It's too soon to assess the wisdom of the bold, if counterintuitive, print-first strategy at a time when digital media are vigorously siphoning readers and revenue away from newspapers. While we wait to see how that plays out, the tale of the Peel offers an excellent case study of the good, bad, and ugly aspects of innovative product development in the legacy newspaper environment--a skill that every publishing company needs, but few have mastered.

The perfect man to tell the Peel story is Douglas Bennett, who until September was the top digital of-fleer at Freedom Communications, the parent of the Register. Bennett, who exited the company when the strategy shifted from pixels to print, has five important tips for editors and publishers hoping to develop innovative products. Well get to them in a moment. First, here's the background:

"The Peel was proposed in July 2010 as a lean-back, media-rich experience, to be delivered at 6 p.m. each day to the sort of 24-to 44-year-old individuals who typically don't read newspapers," Bennett said in an interview. "Our research showed that the younger readers we wanted--but didn't have--were not necessarily interested in conventional newspaper content but, rather, were interested in the weather, personalities, or what to do on the weekend. So, we went heavy with video and graphical stories and left out most of the stuff that normally appears in the newspaper."

Although the app intentionally was designed to be nothing like the newspaper, it initially carried the Register's name and was marketed primarily through the print and Web editions of the paper. …