I license information for a living. That is what law libraries do. We are intermediaries between someone who is selling content and someone who wants to access content. Unlike law libraries, apps tend to fail at delivering licensed content. One reason is that most apps are either one-to-one (publisher provided) or one-to-none (free access). If I were to build an information app, these are my druthers.

Let me start with two scope comments.

First, I’m mostly going to talk about non-legal resources. It’s easier and the app market is bigger. But the challenges are the same since I’m going to talk about paywalled content. Law libraries know about paywalls. Thomson Reuters? RELX? HeinOnline? Paywalls. We may call them electronic licenses but I’m thinking of them when I use the term paywall. Think Thomson Reuters Westlaw or its Proview app: paywalled content.

Second, I am not suggesting payment isn’t a necessary, even a good, thing. In fact, I would like to be able to pay a publisher and access that publisher’s content through an app. The problem I have – and which would be great to fix from an information delivery perspective – is that I have to have an app for every paywall.

The goal: shift the licensing up stream. Instead of the app handling the licensing – or ignoring the licensing – let the app user flow licensed content through the app.

A flow chart that shows, on the left that each invdividual information source has to be read individually, especially if licensed content. On the right, a preference for having the information accessed through a single app that manages the licensing authentication. But also an app that doesn’t do select what is licensed and what isn’t; the app user should do that and the app should rely on the user’s selection.

Define the Problem

A paywall requires a couple of things. A publisher needs to be able to block access to content. They may block it from an open web site – like the Globe and Mail which differentiates between free and premium content – or they may block it by restricting access to their portal. The single entry point method is how legal publishers do it.

You need a login to bypass the paywall. You get that login by paying money. In many cases, you pay the publisher for the content. The publisher then gives you a login.

There are some apps where you pay the subscription to the app provider, like Apple News. The app provider then creates relationships with publishers. This is great for the app maker but the money flow may not be so great for the publisher.

Your login may work in a couple of ways. Most commonly, it works on the web site of the publisher. They can authenticate you because they have tied their authentication and billing systems together.

It also may work in the app. Not all publishers have apps, but if they do, you can add your credentials and see the content. Some publishers ditched their print offering in order to just be a web site and an app, like La Presse.

A simple chart showing money flowing down to publishers who then provide content offerings.

This isn’t a terrible model if you are only following two publications. It’s not dissimilar to the paper news model. When I lived in the Chicago area, I subscribed to the daily Chicago Tribune and also a local neighborhood newspaper.

At one point I was paying for the Guardian’s content but I still couldn’t get rid of the money requests because I wasnt’ accessing their site or their app. I might as well not have given them money. The same for sites like the Washington Post; the license only works through their channels.

It doesn’t scale well in a digital information world, though. On a daily basis, I read content from dozens of platforms. This may include both LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters, a variety of news platforms. Each one of these follows the same isolated approach. Just as we do now with legal research – login, check a source, logout, login, check next source, logout, repeat – we have to hit multiple platforms or apps to follow licensed content.

How do I get access using information tools that are not tied to the publisher?

Shift Authentication

There are lots of aggregators out there. Ebscohost (which one of our kids was horrified by when trying to find information recently) and Proquest dominate journals and news. Apple News is a big player in open web news. The aggregators are limited by their relationships with publishers.

I want to use a tool that allows me to aggregate my own licensed content. That way, I can license what I know I will use and be sure the money is reaching the publisher.

One thing the app would have to do is handle the authentication component. The whole point of paywalled content is that you have to pay to get access. No payment, no access.

We already have an example to use: social login. When web sites build functionality that requires a login, they no longer have to manage the username and password function. They can use social login tools to do that.

What I picture in my head is the ability for an app to send out the same authentication request that a social login page does. Using something like OAuth, a publisher would receive a request from an app to confirm a subscriber’s access. The publisher – who has accepted a payment and created a username for its subscriber – will confirm the subscriber has access.

An example from a Shopify app of a variety of social login options.

If you can shift this authentication piece to the app, you would allow people to fill the app with their own content. I might follow a Google alert, a LexisNexis news alert, and non-RSS based topics. Right now, I would have to use a couple of apps or tools do access that content. If I could get all of that content under a single app, I think I could be a more efficient researcher.

Conform the Content

I’m a long time user of Flipboard and Google News. I use them in addition to RSS feed readers and the two provide me a good mix of content. RSS is targeted (by publication or keyword). Flipboard and Google News are not great.

Even after you subscribe to specific publications, you end up with some questionable sources. Google News in particular has a terrible source problem. In their Newsstand section, their lack of paid content suggests to me that they don’t have a solid alternative for embedding subscriptions.

Some of the content in the open web information apps can be licensed through the app. The authentication is happening outside the app, though. For example, if you are a New York Times subscriber, Google News sends you to their web site to authenticate.

The “already a subscriber” screen for the New York Times in Google News. My guess is that the app places a cookie or some other indicator in its cache to remember that you are an authenticated reader. If you leave the app and open up the NYT.com web site in your browser, I expect you would have to login again.

That is one area that the curated apps are more successful. RBDigital (commonly accessed through public library licensing) and Apple News do the selection for you. The other alternative tends to be a lot less fixed.

A small part of my blocked media list in Google News. The noise to value ratio is extremely high in Google News, and particularly if you are not interested in a subject area (like sports or fashion).

The authentication and selection pieces aren’t the only hurdle. Once you have selected your content, licensed it and tied your license to your publisher-agnostic app, you still want to get content designed for an app.

A publisher who develops their own app can handle this. Strip out a bunch of menus and other content and just deliver what’s being asked for. On the open web, publishers have shown they’re not so good at it.

When you use Flipboard or Google News and click on an article, you may get one of a variety of results:

  • best case: the web site drops its own banner and headers and side menus and navigation, and you see an AMP-like mobile content result (which still may have a ton of ads embedded in it)
  • typical case: you get the web site, just as it looks in any web browser. It’s not awful but it’s not tailored to the mobile view
  • worst case: you get the web site, but it is not geared towards tools that don’t support javascript or other web functionality. One site I regularly see content from does image galleries, which often appear halfway down the content and are unrelated to the story. These images split into individual objects, so you finish two or three paragraphs of text and then have 8 or 10 screens of images, before reaching the last paragraph of text.
Prof. Harold HIll says to River City’s Boys Band, “Think, men, think!” From “The Music Man”

I’m not sure whether the answer is something like AMP-based content or not. I would tend to think not. Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is a Google initiative and it strips out a lot of the clutter of the web.

It also can make it hard for a content publisher – like my blog – to see the usage of the content. The rules for AMP are persnickety. You can add /?amp to the ending of any page on my site to see the AMP version. In many cases, it won’t be any different unless you resize it for a mobile device.

It may not be the worst thing for content to be AMP-compatible. But publishers would need to conform content in at least two ways.

The first would be to show the full content to authenticated subscribers. That means that, if the content is coming from the main repository (legal research database, publisher web site), and is a teaser for non-subscribers, the full content should appear in the app for subscribers.

The second would be to make the content readable. The publishers would have to consider what was needed to present the content and what they could strip out. It’s something they should be doing in any event, but would go a long way to making their information more readable for people paying for access.

Web sites are often driven by content management systems. Whether it’s something fancy or a WordPress site like this one, publishers have a lot of tools for making their content flexible for different audiences.

Of the challenges, I think the authentication is the bigger one. It looks like app providers who aren’t licensing the content directly are using browser kludges to handle authentication. If the publishing world could get that part down, I think there would be some interesting opportunities for news apps and subscriptions.

I don’t think the legal publishers have the market willingness to put their content in a more useable form in a more flexible tool. They haven’t even shown the ability to federate their own content platforms, let alone have their content appear through others platforms. But from that perspective, they aren’t too far different from the wider publishing world.