In the beginning, newspapers’ apps were mostly replicas of what they produce in print daily, shrunk down to fit a desired screen. Publishers simply wanted to be in the mobile mix -– and the emphasis was less on trying creative approaches in application look and feel and more on just being there.

That, I’m happy to report, is changing.

Click image to read the entire series

Click image to read the entire series

At this point, there’s no shortage of mobile products created by newspapers. Staffs are developing general news apps, sure, but in many cases they’re also tacking on a host of more niche apps. They’re also being more thoughtful about the types of journalistic content suited for mobile consumption and the extent to which clean presentations make this content sing.

The apps that resonate with me most play up the functionality of the device, are useful to readers, and give information to help citizens lead better lives on the go. Newspapers, I believe, are learning that what works on a smartphone is different than what works on a tablet. What’s a helpful app in Los Angeles is different than what passes for a helpful app in Cleveland. And a newspaper staff that understands their community is better positioned than most to make these sorts of product adjustments to suit the market.

Having said that, here are my picks for best newspaper apps. I listed my selections by newspaper and then explained the particular app or apps by that publication that stand out. Some have excelled in apps that are geared toward more lifestyle topics while others have done well with more traditional news coverage. All the apps are free of charge (or free for a limited time), which goes against the business model of most papers who are starting to charge for apps of their news content.

1. The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal, always known for its journalistic excellence, is banking heavily on video. A large swath of its reporters has been trained to use video in their reporting on a consistent basis. So it makes sense that the most innovative app the paper has released so far is a video-centered one. WSJ Live is available in tablet and smartphone formats, but really shines on the iPad with hours of live and original video programing and the ability to access the entire collection of Journal videos at your leisure.

While publications talk about venturing into video, WSJ Live just does it. The app came out in the fall of 2011, but has stepped up its game since with added podcasts and audio along with video segments.

Getting the app

WSJ Live

On the iPad

On Google Play

2. Denver Post

Denver Post screen shot

The Denver Post might be churning out the most mobile products of any newspaper, especially on tablets, so as to appeal to different sectors of users both in the Denver area and beyond. Its traditional news iPad app was redesigned in summer 2012 to great acclaim. By simplifying the look and making the design more image-driven, engagement has climbed.

At the same time, there’s been a concerted effort to create visual-heavy applications centered on more evergreen subjects that are distinct to the Denver geographic region. Because the Post is seeing more time from their users spent on tablets over smartphones they chose to emphasize that platform. The Colorado Ski Guide is a natural fit for this strategy. The app is a colorful brochure with detailed listings about resorts, only formatted for swiping on the iPad.

The same thinking was applied to “Garden Colorado” and “Best Things to Do in Colorado.” They’re both simple to navigate and can be of great service to those who live there or are visiting. They went beyond breaking news and a local audience to offer something useful on the iPad where they’re seeing engagement.

Getting the app

Denver Post

On the iPad

Colorado Ski Guide

On the iPad

Garden Colorado

On the iPad

Best Things to Do in Colorado

On the iPad

3. San Francisco Chronicle

The Hearst-owned newspaper capitalized on the amazing food and drink culture that’s engrained in the City by the Bay when it launched two free smartphone apps anchored on going out.

sfchronicle-bars-app
“Top 100” resembles a year-end best-of list of standout eateries organized by both segment of the San Francisco Bay Area and the type of cuisine. Each restaurant listing provides a map, link to reserve a table, and practical information like pricing and noise rating. There’s also one-click access to the original review for the establishment by the newspaper’s restaurant critic.

“Bay Area Top 100 bars” is organized in a similar style with the user’s choice of scrolling  through a list of all 100 or searching by category of drinking hole – in terms like “tiki bars” versus “food-centric.” The best feature might be the collection of drink recipes the Chronicle has culled from San Francisco bartenders.

Getting the app

Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants

On the iPhone

On Google Play

Top 100 Bay Area Bars

On the iPhone

On Google Play

4. RedEye (Chicago Tribune)

It’s hard to believe that RedEye recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Ten years ago, the niche publication was groundbreaking in its bold attempt to appeal to the elusive younger city dwellers. The app by Redeye, too, is certainly geared toward a youthful Chicagoan who is out and about. Utility is the core selling point. Redeye’s crimson home screen is as simple as they come — four tabs with sections devoted to train, bus or taxi; dining and drinks; news; and missed connections. The section tied to transportation does something obvious but helpful -– it provides click to call to get a cab and tracks both rail and bus service. The news is bite-sized and highly local. And who doesn’t want to be able to browse descriptions of men and women seeking each other out after passing by each other without contact?

Getting the app

RedEye

On the iPhone

On Google Play

5. Dallas Morning News

Purpose drives two vastly different creations for the smartphone by the Dallas Morning News. Dallas Skyline’s intent is to assist locals and visitors in getting the best views of the Texas city. To do that, the app plots the buildings making up the skyline on a clickable map, or users can skim through a list by building. Each selection gives trivia-like facts and a brief history lesson. Putting together the information was the work of the newspaper’s arts critic, real estate editor and a writer, who scoured the archives and conducted original research.

SportsDayHS is a one-stop shop for photos and scores for more than 200 Dallas-area high school football teams. Other newspapers have since latched onto the popularity of high school sports and are doing similar combined products with push notifications to keep football fans notified of stats and standings.

Getting the app

Dallas Skyline

On the iPhone

On Google Play

SportsDayHS

On the iPhone

On Google Play

6. The Arizona Republic

Usage of tablets tends to peak in the evening, but most news organizations so far haven’t considered optimal usage time when conceiving of mobile undertakings. AZCentral (the joint venture of the Arizona Republic and NBC affiliate KPNX) has.  AZ Today, which launched in the fall, is the company’s answer to a nightly newsmagazine, currently published three times a week. As a result, some of the content is more lean back than a standard news app. The “Amuse” section is wittier fare both in subject matter –- say, a feature on antique toys –- and the way in which users interact with items on the screen -– more ability to touch and play around with what’s displayed. There are also meatier, lengthier articles by staff members, in some cases building off of daily coverage and other times exclusive to the tablet app entirely. What’s most innovative is how AZ Today figures into the overall strategic thinking of AZCentral. Daily, editors talk about stories they want to tell and plot out which platform is best on a case-by-case basis.

Getting the app

AZ Today (free for a limited time)

On the iPad

7. Boston Globe

The Boston Globe is the most prominent example of a newspaper using responsive design on its mobile site. Yet, the mobile team in Boston has certainly dipped its toe in the app water. The Boston.com general news smartphone app is comprehensive without being complex. A tiled screen displays more than a dozen content categories. Along with the standard news and sports categories is a section of “Insights,” local blogs featuring conversations with local businesses. Just as with the web version of Boston.com, users are able to directly buy tickets to events in the region and to listen to RadioBDC, the rock station that the Globe purchased in 2012.

Getting the app

Boston.com

On the iPhone

On Google Play

8. The Guardian

The newest app on this list is the Guardian’s hub for user-generated content. GdnWitness provides a gateway for users to browse photos, stories and videos submitted from outside of the newsroom, and there’s also the opportunity to be the contributors. Guardian newsroom leaders request specific assignments, such as accounts of Syrian refugees. Then, the entry provides a deadline for submissions and some background about why they’re gathering the material. The best submissions from the smartphone app make it into The Guardian’s main product lines.

Getting the app

Guardian Witness

On the iPhone

On Google Play

Dena Levitz is the manager of digital strategies for the Newspaper Association of America while also pursuing a master’s in Media Entrepreneurship at American University. Dena has freelanced for publications like the Washington Post and The Atlantic’s Cities website, been a news writer for the Washington Examiner and the Augusta Chronicle, and worked as a weekend White House stringer for Bloomberg News. In her spare time she enjoys drinking a hoppy beer, chomping on a cheeseburger or quoting from one of the Rocky movies.