Login is restricted to DCN Publisher Members. If you are a DCN Member and don't have an account, register here.

Digital Content Next


InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Can newspapers ever be “essential” apps on smartphones?

March 3, 2022 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

TikTok, the insanely popular social video app, comes pre-installed on a number of Samsung smartphones. That’s hardly surprising. Samsung and TikTok have a longstanding relationship, with the app finding a place on Samsung smart TVs back in December of 2020. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership: The hardware manufacturer rides the wave of the app’s rapid growth in popularity, the app expands its audience, and the pair have access to a new suite of data between them.

What is surprising, though, is how deeply embedded TikTok appears to be in Samsung hardware. As reported by Screenrant, and as pointed out in Samsung forums, the app is not just pre-installed on Samsung devices. It is in fact deemed “essential.” That means it can’t be uninstalled completely, on par with the Camera app. While workarounds do exist, the message is clear: Samsung dearly wants its users use that TikTok app on its smartphones.

As Screenrant’s Nadeem Sarwar points out, there must be a tangible benefit for both parties – even if that comes at a storage and data cost to the user: “How TikTok is an essential app is unclear. But to the average smartphone user, it is nothing more than a cash-grab scheme between the world’s most popular app and the world’s largest smartphone seller.”

While the partnership between Samsung and TikTok is pertinent for media companies, it is far from the only pre-installed or essential app tie-ups of the past few years. The PlayStation 5 media remote comes with physical buttons for launching Netflix, Disney Plus, Spotify, and YouTube. Samsung also includes Facebook as one of its essential pre-installed apps, which adds fuel to the fire of user accusations of bloatware.

But what does that mean for media companies, news publishers whose apps are not considered essential in their own right? And should those companies be considering pursuing similar exclusive partnerships with hardware manufacturers?

Apps strong together

Newspapers do have a presence as pre-installed apps to some extent already. Apple’s News app has been pre-installed on iPhones for some years now, itself the successor to its Newsstand app. That has been further developed with the implementation of News+, which boasts any number of publishers by now. That means that users, at least in theory, have a pre-installed and essential app through which they can reach newspapers on iOS (provided they agree to Apple’s terms, which have been… tumultuous).

In practice, however, it isn’t the same at all. Access via an aggregator is not the same as having a dedicated app, for both publishers and audiences. Readly, Apple News+, and many of the other aggregators are not focused on media brands creating a direct relationship with audiences. They’re about revenue, not engagement.

Worse still, this bundling robs publishers of the ability to iterate and experiment with an app they own and operate. Mathias Douchet, director of product at The Telegraph, says that freedom is the single most important point when it comes to establishing long-term user relationships:

“Even with a continuous improvement cycle, it is important to celebrate your success as it happens. With the new digital edition app, three out of four users are coming back daily. This is even higher among core subscribers at 95%.”

So even when publishers do have a presence on essential apps, it doesn’t necessarily replicate the benefits of the partnership between TikTok and Samsung. It does not serve the same purpose, nor does it necessarily benefit the user.

Beat the bloat

So why does it matter to publishers if their apps do not appear as pre-installed solutions on smartphone hardware? The answer is that in the battle for attention those pre-installed solutions allow some apps to cheat. They leave the starting line before the firing gun has gone off. This puts the rest of apps – newspapers and magazines included – at a disadvantage when it comes to audience attention.

A good rule of thumb is that unless your app appears in a users’ top five most-used apps, they aren’t visiting it every day. That in turn means that users are unlikely to develop the habit of opening a news app regularly, which creates fewer touch points with your subscriber.

According to research from App Annie in its State of Mobile 2021 report, news publishers very rarely appear in the top five most used apps on users’ smartphones. The few that do typically are state broadcasters like the BBC. The top two most used apps among Gen X in the UK are BBC Weather and BBC News respectively. No news apps appear in the top five most used apps for either Gen Z or Millennials. In the US, the only news app to appear in any of the cohorts’ most used apps is The Weather Channel.

Preferential treatment

There is a self-perpetuating cycle to the issue of pre-installed apps. They get chosen as partners by hardware manufacturers because they are popular; and they become more popular because they are pre-installed. By contrast news apps, which barely account for more than 6% of time spent in apps in total, barely factor in and are unlikely to be considered essential in terms of user priority.

A second factor is that news apps come with political and emotional baggage, which apps like TikTok are unlikely to have. It is unlikely given accusations of bloat and the need to work out partnership deals that any smartphone manufacturer would seek to force users to keep a particular outlets’ news app on their device. It is more unlikely still that they would do so given that accusations of bias and monopolistic practices around big tech companies are rampant.

Consider U2’s “Songs of Innocence” debacle, in which the band and Apple received backlash for distributing the band’s album for free onto people’s devices. Now add in the current supercharged political climate and consumer’s polarized position on news brands. Things could get complicated fast.

Apps, particularly on smartphones, remain a key part of many newspapers’ and magazines’ strategies. Users spend more time on their phones than with television, and time spent in apps made up a significant proportion of that. But despite the value they create for media companies and their audiences, it is unlikely that hardware manufacturers consider them as big a draw for their consumers as entertainment apps.

So, if newspapers want to be included in a pre-installed app on smartphones, maybe they should invest in dancing lessons for their journalists. Because, for better or worse, making their apps a fixture of users’ mobile diet may not come as easily as negotiating a pre-install position.

Liked this article?

Subscribe to the InContext newsletter to get insights like this delivered to your inbox every week.