I no longer keep very close pulse of our hometown daily, The Oregonian, so I missed the news that they were putting together a beer app. I don’t think I’ll be sending in jaws to the floor when I report that it’s … not good. One of the biggest complaints locals have had, going back well over a decade, is the abysmal quality of OregonLive, the online site for the paper. The paper’s app is actually worse. And even if the digital products were well-designed, they would be hamstrung by the fact that the paper has spent the last five years assiduously ridding itself of competent reporters. (Skip to the last paragraph is you’re interested in seeing how they plan to replace them.)
On top of all that, it’s really hard to make a decent beer app because of the sheer magnitude of beer information out there (beer, breweries, events). It’s nearly impossible to collect it all and, when you do, it begins to fall out of date instantly. Everyone can visualize the perfect app: it contains detailed descriptions of every beer, brewery, and event, and where to find beers on tap at any given moment. The problem is implementing it, which seems basically impossible.
So what did the O do? Oregon On Tap is about as half-assed as you’d expect an Oregonian product to be. It is attractively designed, but contains a weird hodgepodge of info. There’s a running feed of stories about beer, the O’s pic for best beers, random info about pubs, beers, and pub crawls. Some of these are better than others–the pub crawls feature isn’t terrible, though it’s just an archive of stories. The pubs section reproduces a Google search in your phone. The beers section has lists by name and style (including such classics as “Helle/Bock,” “Pale/Saison/Biere de Garde,” and “Bitter Ale.”), but doesn’t give you much info on the beers or where you can find them. If you can manage a Google search, all this info is at your fingertips anyway.
It does raise the question about what the O is up to these days. Getting into other products seems like a good way to go, but this app is free and contains (at the moment) no advertising inside. They recently went through another round of buyouts, shedding what seems the last bit of institutional firepower they had. The online site continues to be infested with fragments of articles, listicles, and random clickbait–along with terrible information design.
One clue to the future may be glimpsed in an offer I got a while back. The O contacted me to see if I wanted to partner with them. I took the meeting and learned that they have a plan to outsource reporting to bloggers. The notion is that they’ll mirror their partner blogs’ content at OregonLive. If a post catches an editor’s eye, they’ll place it in the print edition. Of course, for this partnership they’re offering “exposure,” not dollars. What is surprising is this nugget: the editor I spoke to tried to play up the fact that I wouldn’t have editorial oversight. Whatever I wrote would go up verbatim at OregonLive. What happens if it goes to the print edition, I asked? Surely you’d edit that? No. Apparently if they edit a piece and reprint it, they are legally liable as the publisher. If they reprint something from another source–with typos and potentially false info–they’re not legally liable. So to recap: the Oregonian’s solution to collapsing ad revenue is to become a giant blog aggregator. I suppose the price is right.