SAN FRANCISCO — Tribune Co., looking to bolster readership, is wading into growing competition for the time and attention of people who consume news on mobile devices.
Tribune said it is rolling out a free mobile app Thursday that lets smartphone and tablet users stream audio of 7,000 news stories from more than 600 news outlets each day. The app, Newsbeat, is the first product to come out of Tribune Digital Ventures, the technology arm of the newspaper publisher and broadcast television company.
News outlets are hunting for new ways to guide readers to compelling content so they can show them more ads and staunch shrinking advertising revenue. More and more of that means targeting consumers where they are spending an increasing amount of their time: on mobile devices.
Silicon Valley companies have gotten a head start, rolling out sleek mobile apps that aggregate news from a variety of publishers and display content based on people's reading habits and those of their friends.
Analysts say Tribune is counting on Silicon Valley innovation to help it catch up.
"It's a bit late compared to a lot of other apps vendors who have embraced mobile devices as a content delivery platform," said Brian Blau, research director in consumer technologies at research firm Gartner Inc. "That doesn't always mean bad news. The app could have potential if Tribune can figure out how to capture users' attention."
Newsbeat is going after commuters who are either stuck in their cars or on public transportation for long stretches. The app uses a combination of text to voice and human voice-overs to create a radio-like experience on mobile devices, said Shashi Seth, the former Yahoo executive who is president of Tribune Digital Ventures.
Tribune, which owns the Los Angeles Times, is also talking with major automakers about outfitting cars with the app.
Newsbeat is similar to other mobile apps that stream audio. Umano uses professional voice actors to narrate articles from publishers and blogs to produce audio that people can listen to when commuting, working out at the gym or cooking at home. Swell streams audio from broadcasters such as NPR and ABC News and podcasts from the BBC and Comedy Central.
Newsbeat users can customize what they hear by selecting which publications and topics they prefer, even which sports teams, television shows and celebrities they are interested in.
Content comes from Tribune newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and other outlets such as CNN and Fox News. The app also offers local weather and traffic updates.
Listeners can set the distance of their commute to hear the most relevant stories during that span of time. They can skip stories that don't interest them, and over time the app will learn their news habits, Seth said.
The app will target ads from national and local advertisers based on the data it collects from listeners. Tribune has revenue-sharing agreements with publishers, but Seth would not provide specifics.
Seth said he sees Newsbeat doing for news what music streaming services Pandora and Spotify have done for music.
He joined Tribune Digital Ventures 10 months ago to help spur growth and revenue for newspaper publishers and broadcast TV stations. The stand-alone company operates out of Palo Alto, separately from the publishing and broadcast businesses.
Planting a flag in Silicon Valley will help Tribune create a portfolio of digital products, Seth said. He declined to be more specific about future products.
For hundreds of years newspapers set the agenda by delivering content for readers in daily print editions, and television stations could count on viewers turning in for newscasts.
But the traditional news industry has been upended by the Internet, which places a premium on delivering news as it happens and brings news to readers from a broad range of sources. Now Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook and up-and-comers such as Flipboard are transforming how news is delivered on devices that are always on and always in people's pockets.
"We have this core, fundamental need to know what's going on in the world, and it's insatiable," said Josh Elman, a venture capitalist at Greylock Partners who previously worked on products for Facebook and Twitter. "And now we are in this amazing renaissance of news in which we are rapidly shifting from the old news habits of turning on the TV or reading a newspaper once a day to always checking the news."
Facebook and other companies have seized on people's desire to know up to the minute what's going on in the world around them as a way to keep users more engaged with their services.
A Pew Research study last year found that one third of adults in the U.S. now get their news through Facebook. Earlier this year, the giant social network rolled out Paper, a new tool to read Facebook posts and news articles that taps into social signals from friends and selections from editors.
The front-runner among news reading apps, Flipboard, has more than 100 million users and is growing by 250,000 users a day, the Palo Alto company said.
Professional networking service LinkedIn spent about $90 million to buy mobile news reader Pulse as it establishes its own publishing platform. Yahoo launched News Digest, an app that presents summaries of important stories. And Twitter continues to play a key role in breaking news around the globe.
Add to that list a host of newcomers, including Inside, an app from Los Angeles entrepreneur Jason Calacanis that presents up to 1,000 articles each day in 300-character-long summaries from a range of sources.
Elman says Newsbeat is smart to target commuters with audio streaming.
"The number of hours we spend in our cars commuting still trumps all kinds of other activities," he said.
But he's not sure it's enough to overcome the app's key hurdle: getting noticed in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Many news consumers have already come to rely on other news aggregators, Blau said. And Newsbeat is missing a key feature that helped propel the popularity of those news reading apps: tapping into social networks to show users what their friends are reading.