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Here comes 'AZ' -- one iPad news app closes, another goes live

Murdoch's tablet publication, "The Daily," is closing, but another app rises in Phoenix, combining the power of local media with the creativity of the iPad.

Screengrab of "AZ" a new iPad magazine launched by Arizona Republic, AZCentral.com and KPNX-TV.

This morning, I had a meeting with a former student who is now the U.S. correspondent for one of the biggest dailies in Europe. He is on a listening tour, helping his newspaper look for innovative ideas that will stave off some of the troubles that American newspapers have had.

Like many places overseas, there's still a strong newspaper culture in his country, but he and his bosses don't want to sit around, waiting for the business to tank. So they are looking for good ideas around the world.

While talking about the demise of "The Daily," Rupert Murdoch's pet tablet-only project (here's Don Reisinger's CNET take), I told him that it would be easy to draw the wrong lesson.

Just because one, high-profile, expensive attempt at innovation fails doesn't mean that we should all stop trying. There will be others experiments to watch, I told him.

A few hours later, I got an alert about someone else playing in the iPad space, but this time, it was not launching in New York City.

I received an email from Keira Nothaft, senior director/news publishing and programming, at the Arizona Republic. She works on AZCentral.com, which is a joint effort of the newspaper and the local NBC affiliate, KPNX-TV. In it, she described "AZ," which she called "a significant development in the evolution of newspaper-to-digital publishing" - an evening news magazine for the iPad. It will be published once a week through January and then move to Monday-Friday after that. It's free until February, with Android and Kindle versions en route.

I've been playing with "AZ" (downloadable here, or search "AZ Today" in the App Store) over the past hour and have been impressed so far. Big, beautiful photographs, strong graphics and punchy stories that make use of iPad's functionality. This isn't just a tablet version of the website, but a magazine-like experience broken up into four chapters to: "Inform you about the world. Engage you with storytelling. Entertain you with the world of sports. Amuse you with the fun features you want every time."

I like to see media companies try new things. Nothaft's e-mail explains why her team is doing this:

Like most legacy media outlets, The Arizona Republic is striving to hold onto print readership while simultaneously building a profitable digital audience. We're in a good position, though, because we're the biggest newspaper in the state, the leading news TV station in the market and one of the largest news websites in the country. But we recognize we need to do more.

Until recently, most newspapers in America gave away their content online, but now many are moving to various versions of a paywall (one count as 20 percent using paywalls). The Republic's readers, Nothaft explains, are being asked "to pay to subscribe to content in all its forms, on many different platforms. In return, the newsroom would deliver more -- more great storytelling, more watchdog reporting, more great multimedia. The app is free until February, when it will be included with every full-access subscription, for everyone who owns an iPad."

Other points she makes in her note:

AZ is timed to be released when people are using their tablets the most, in the evening, with time to lean back and sink into an immersive read. We know that about 70 percent of tablet usage is in the home between the hours of 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. While AZ will draw on content produced by the Republic newsroom, as well as original photo, video and text, it will go far beyond a typical duplication of a newspaper website. Editors will create, curate and tailor the content for the tablet, keeping in mind the different demands and pleasures afforded by the digital reading experience.

There's a market for smart, sophisticated, interactive journalism - in metro Phoenix, 14 percent of all adults, more than half a million people, already own and use a tablet. The number's growing every day.

Nothaft shares how this experiment differs from "The Daily," including the geography:

We think it's a significant development for a newspaper to have such an aggressive and unique tablet strategy. We also think the timing is interesting, coming as another tablet experiment, The Daily, folds. We're approaching AZ as a startup, using existing resources and minimal investment. (Though, I challenge anyone to differentiate the sophistication of this multimedia magazine from anything that's produced in Midtown Manhattan.) The financial model differs from The Daily in that subscribers to AZ will gain access to our suite of digital products that includes the magazine, other tablet apps, mobile and desktop. And for print readers, the tablet magazine and all of our digital products is included with their subscription. The strategy is to increase the satisfaction of current subscribers and gain nontraditional newspaper readers. The magazine will include ads beginning with the new year.

If you don't have an iPad, you can get a sense of the publication by see this slideshow.

What do you make of this? Share your thoughts in the comments, please.