Hearst's Smart Bet On Niche iPhone Apps

The Wall Street Journal has a story today on how Hearst Corporation hopes to develop thousands -- that's right, thousands -- of news-aggregating iPhone applications centered on specific topics.

There are some pitfalls to avoid, but it looks like a smart new media move by an old media company.

Hearst expects the apps, which will draw on its photos and text from from across the Web, will cost "just a few hundred dollars of employee time." As The Journal reports:

Dozens of applications already are available from Apple, with more expected to roll out over the next year. The apps sell for 99 cents and up for fans of the New York Yankees, Red Sox and other ball clubs, as well as for Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Coldplay and other musicians.

So, why is it a good idea? First, the app consumer is already used to paying for things. As George Kliavkoff, the executive in charge of the initiative, tells The Journal, "unlike the Web, we've always trained people that everything on the mobile device costs money." Let other people figure out how to charge online. You might as well focus on a medium in which people already pay for content.

There's also little disagreement that granular journalism, focused on niche topics, is a key part of the future of media. As City University of New York professor C.W. Anderson wrote in December, a key consensus to emerge among media professionals last year was the "the inevitable shrinking and nicheification of news organizations." Niche is in.

AOL is making a big bet on geographical niches (also known as hyperlocal journalism) and, as I said yesterday, the niche site Politico will likely become profitable this year. PaidContent.org, which caters to the media and digital media sectors, is another example of a niche success.

But there are pitfalls. For the apps to sell, Hearst has to offer something -- anything, really -- that a simple Google search or RSS feed doesn't. Even something as simple as breaking news alerts could be enough, I think.

Hearst will also need to steer clear of Apple's app-purging police, which recently began clearing its store of "cookie cutter" apps that offer little more functionality than a simple Web site or RSS feed. Granted, Apple has been known to make exceptions for the mainstream media in their purges, but given that Hearst is working on the Skiff e-reader, a possible iPad competitor, who knows what Apple will do.

If Hearst can provide even some minor added value to the cheap apps though, the experiment looks like it could have real potential to subsidize the company's journalism.