The Problems of New Apps

Uber, the the car-on-demand transportation service, is attempting nothing less than to take over the world’s urban taxicab business. Not surprisingly, this has certain people, including cabbies, pretty upset, and the service is now embroiled in controversy.

Uber’s introduction underscores the dramatic transition underway in journalism today. Not only are there many new reporters appearing on the scene who haven’t necessarily been trained in the field. It’s also increasingly obvious that content — what is being covered — is also changing, as the mainstream media and new media all pursue the new buzzword of reporting: relevance.

This trend comes into clearer focus in news coverage of technology, especially in consumer-facing applications that provide new ways of doing old things, from using a slide rule to hailing a cab. Most new apps initially receive glowing, enthusiastic reviews by the business and trade press, reflecting a mindset that tends to accept that whatever is new or different is superior to the old. It’s only when consumers and affected businesses and traditional service providers begin pushing back that the media starts raising questions about the efficacy of the new product or service.

Some background: Uber was an idea hatched by two startup entrepreneurs who thought that waiting for a cab was a ridiculous waste of time. They concluded that with not much investment beyond a new app, they could disrupt the traditional taxicab business by  crowd sourcing rides in cities and towns via a mobile app which could rustle up a car and driver almost immediately, and for a much lower fare. Voila! A new business was born.

As is typically the case with all clever new apps, early adopters jumped on Uber, which started operations on the fly, making up rules and procedures as it grew and expanded.  Its stated aim was to supplant traditional taxi services, which were regulated by city governments that required cabbies to be licensed and bonded. Uber’s founders, in effect, blew off those regulations. The firm became emboldened as more customers started using Uber (and other new arrivals on the scene), even as cab companies howled and city governments became wary.

Media coverage of Uber, at least initially, was noticeable by the obvious enthusiasm of articles and broadcasts, notably in the business media. “Hey, here’s a neat new way to get around town” was pretty much the standard tone of coverage. When problems began popping up, such as concerns about who, exactly were the drivers offering their cars as taxis, or how consumers could be protected against being ripped off, the enthusiasm began to wane — to a degree. As problems mounted, Uber was described as going through growing pains, and that things would be sorted out eventually, ushering in a transformation of a basic mode of transport for getting from point A to B.

Uber has continued to expand, but news coverage is rapidly becoming less forgiving. With criticial scrutiny rising, one Uber executive, in a fit of pique, responded with kindergarten anger. The exec speculated publicly that Uber critics in the media should be trashed via orchestrated character assassination. Needless to say, the business press hasn’t taken kindly to this idea, which — in fairness — the executive has recanted. As it happens, the outburst came in the midst of a Uber PR charm offensive campaign with the media to improve its image.

There things stand for the moment. Uber’s fate remains unsettled.  Local governments have banned the service outright in some cities, and restricted it in others. Taxi businesses have lobbied strenuously to protect their franchises and, in many places, they have managed to stem Uber’s aggressive expansion plans. Interestingly, however, Uber users are rallying around the service, arguing that negative articles are the result of taxicab business propaganda and, therefore, without merit.

To me, the more fundamental question is whether the new corps of reporters and editors, already caught up in the fervor of application-guided lifestyel, blinded by the sizzle of new ideas, resulting in articles that are largely adulatory and enthusiastic rather than objective and balanced? In the case of Uber, the mainstream as well as tech press largely gave the concept a free pass until issues arose by disgruntled users and suddenly displaced interests.

That leads to perhaps an even deeper question, linked to the transformative changes in the current media landscape. What, exactly, is news in the current environment?

Across the mainstream media, publishers and broadcasters are aggressively choosing subjects to cover based on page views, that is, by relevance and topicality, rather than what is important and substantial (although the two are not mutually exclusive). Additionally, journalism today has locked into a specific target audience, the 25 to 45 age demogrphic, precisely those most likely to be on top of, and amenable to, the newest fad or trend. In other words, today’s journalism industry seems predisposed to cover what interests their target demographic, rather than the larger and more amorphous general public.

Here, in a newsroom memo from Detroit Free Press Editor and Publisher Paul Anger, is as good a summary of one publishing firm’s (Gannett’s) emerging editorial strategy:

First, we’ll be doing more staff training on metrics — details to come soon — and how to plan content for different platforms and audiences. How to analyze traffic, maximize it, learn from what performs well and what doesn’t. We need to emphasize, more and more, reaching readers in the 25-45 age demographic.”

If this is the new direction of news coverage, stories about companies like Uber are going to appear more often, because they are more relevant to the targeted demographic. This out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new philosophy may indeed generate more page views, Facebook likes and Twitter messages. The danger is that it will turn off older news consumers who may feel increasingly marginalized. Older readers and viewers, it should be noted, access news media far more than younger generations. Is the news media, desparate in to remain relevant to younger consumers (and advertisers) turning its back on their core customers? In the case of Uber, much of the media’s criticism may, in fact, not be reaching those most likely to use the app.

Who, then, will provide the necessary background and objectivity about all the new stuff coming along, and whether the promise of new, user friendly technology is in fact better than whatever it is replacing?

The answer, right now, is as uncertain as Uber’s unsettled future.

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