How the Quest Built a Native Mobile App to Meet Our Readers Where They Are
A Decision to Change
In early December 2022, the Reed College Quest had a problem: we weren’t where our readers needed us to be.
Sure, we distributed printed copies of the Quest in all the right places — the library, the cafeteria, the mail room — but our readers weren’t getting the paper they wanted. They didn’t have time to go out of their way to grab a copy before class, or the inclination to come back for one after lecture. And they didn’t have access to the latest breaking news, because our paper edition only came out once a week.
We needed something new.
We needed to learn what our readers wanted, and go the distance to put our coverage within reach. We needed a format that was light, flexible, and always on hand — more real-time than paper, and more accessible than a website. We needed to put our reporting in our readers’ pockets, and alert them in real time when news broke. We needed an app.
How to Begin?
If we wanted an app, we would need to bring our existing content up to standards for mobile-friendly design. Our existing website was desktop focused — with heavy color blocks and horizontally scrolling elements — so we’d have to completely overhaul our layout.
The Quest website before this semester’s changes, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.
February 10th, 2023
After several weeks of work, the new Quest website officially launches to one of our highest visitor counts ever.
The Quest website after a layout overhaul.
The Work Begins
With a new website online, work could officially begin on a native mobile app. The editors create a GitHub organization for the Quest to store and share code files, and students organize into an app development team on the platform.
Working with Apple
With the help of funding from our student senate, the Quest enrolls in the Apple Developer Program, gaining access to App Store publishing and Apple’s suite of code tools. Students also enroll in the Android Developer Program at this time, but Android development is comparatively easy and is finished within weeks.
Development in Earnest
Working from online tutorials, the app development team teach themselves the Apple Swift programming language, the native language for all iOS development. Development is difficult, but the team is excited to get started.
The Decision to Focus on the Web
At this point the team face a choice between pursuing a native-heavy architecture, which would be more reliable but also less responsive to breaking news, or a web-based app that essentially serves as a wrapper for a mobile version of our website. In light of the Quest’s need for real-time updates during breaking news events, the team decides to focus on web-first design, which also makes the app lighter and faster from the user’s perspective.
Implementing Push Notifications
The team has known since the beginning that push notifications would be a priority, as they offer a level of personal engagement not possible with a simple website. However, implementing a full push notification system in Swift is a bit beyond the skills of our amateur developers, so the team turns to a third party service called One Signal to build an integration into our software. One Signal also supports sending notifications simultaneously across In-App, SMS, and email platforms, allowing our editors to coordinate notifications to all of our readers from a single web console.
Notifications in Action
One Signal allows our editors to send real time breaking news alerts like this one.
After weeks of development, the new app runs without crashing on an iPhone emulator. This is far from a public rollout, but marks a significant step forward in the development process.
The Quest app running a stable build in a local development environment.
Review for Publication
The Quest app enters its first round of App Store screening by Apple, a process infamous for its red tape.
On the Road
Quest Editor and lead app developer Declan Bradley is accepted as a speaker at the Spring 2023 Associated Collegiate Press conference in San Francisco, and gives a talk entitled “Going Mobile: How to Build a Native App for Your Publication from Start to Finish” on the first day of the conference.
Quest Editor Declan Bradley spoke on mobile design and app development at ACP’s spring 2023 conference.
Sharing the Knowledge
In the spirit of collaboration and transparency, the Quest decides to make all source files from our app development project public on GitHub during the conference, and invites other college publications to use them to develop their own apps. The project receives an enthusiastic response, and several other college publications contact the Quest for access to the source files and presentation slides.
April 9th, 2023
After several rounds of review, the Quest app is ultimately rejected by Apple on the basis of plagiarism, a confusing and shocking result that initially alarms the editors. After some digging, the app development team realizes that Apple reviewers have, ironically, flagged the app for plagiarism of the Reed College Quest, seemingly noting the similarity between the app and the paper’s website without understanding that the two are published by the same organization. The editors contact Apple to clarify, and the issue is quickly resolved.
Time for Beta Testing
April 11th, 2023
The Quest app is officially approved for publication by Apple, and goes live on the App Store that week. The app is not initially publicized, but a small group of Quest reporters are asked to download and test it before a wider release.
The Finish Line
April 14th, 2023
The app officially launches with our Friday issue, with full width ads online, on social media, and in print. Downloads are slow at first, but Apple analytics show steady user growth throughout the week.
The Quest app, as advertised on Instagram during launch week.
Our website sees a significant increase in traffic in the weeks after the launch of the app, which continues through the end of the academic year. Our coverage reaches more readers in their preferred medium, exactly as we’d hoped.
Our online publication saw a significant increase in readership following the launch of our native app.
What We Learned
In his book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger tells the story of how he led the paper through the dot-com boom and the dawn of online news. The decision to make the Guardian a digital-first publication, he says, was not one of daring but one of necessity — the readers were going, and the paper had to follow to survive.
As journalists, it can often be tempting to become too absorbed in our stories — to pursue the ideas and formats that most interest us, and not those that best serve our readers. Yet, if we want our coverage to reach those readers, and get the stories that matter most into their hands, we need to be willing to take chances to meet them where they are.