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For newspaper publishers and newspaper readers, iPad apps tend to be nice to have but not especially important. Given the choice of rich newspaper apps like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, I actually opt for the browser versions over the apps: I can see a lot more at once, they’re updated more often, and they load faster.

But I’ve found that newspaper apps for “lite” newspapers are much better. USA Today’s headline and short story format is perfect for the iPad. The Washington Post (not such a lite paper) has a great iPad app, too.

In early December, The San Diego Union-Tribune — a truly lite newspaper but with good local news and features — also launched an iPad app. The result is vastly superior to the print and browser version of the newspaper. More than 11,000 downloads have already taken place.

The U-T’s iPad launch coincides with the elevation of digital chief Mike Hodges to president and COO, and today, a rebranding of the newspaper company, which recently changed hands, to U-T San Diego. The new name also does away with the dated “Sign On San Diego” city guide moniker.

An announcement on the company’s website notes that “We will now use one company name and logo on all of our media products and communications: U-T San Diego. This change marks a new era in our company’s history. It will help us unify our print and digital products under a single brand with a clear and consistent expectation of quality. is now, to match the nameplate of the newspaper and our newly released iPad app.”

Hodges, a digital real estate marketing vet prior to joining Freedom Communications and then The U-T, has been responsible for several new revenue initiatives. These include a heavy emphasis on the local daily deal, bolstered by the acquisition of Discover SD, an events guide and deals platform for a younger demographic.

Hodges notes that the iPad app was specifically designed to have an entertainment orientation. “The primary time that people are looking at it is after 6 p.m., when people want to lean back after dinner and watch TV. They’re often reading the app as well,” he says.

The app, designed by MindGruve Interactive, is geo-enabled for traffic and Surfline surf reports. It features a FlipBoard-like news page, along with dropdown “sections” for easy access. The sections include a full graphic on the Daily Deal — it shows up very well. It also prominently highlights features that were obscured in print and on the website, including arts, photos and videos.

Notably, in an effort to keep it simple, The U-T App doesn’t offer newspaper content such as comics, a television programming guide, letters to the editor, user-generated content or local news — although Hodges says a major local initiative will launch in early January. Other Phase 2 items will include more in-depth, iPad-only content. It might also include more localized weather (the temperature in the San Diego region varies by as much as 15 degrees from one area to the next).

Much has been made of the iPad’s appeal for advertisers. The charter advertiser for The U-T’s free phase is Cadillac. When the app goes to a premium model next quarter after an introductory period, sponsorship will be available for multiple sponsors on a premium basis.

Pricing for the app, however, is still being finalized. When it is introduced during Q1, there is likely to be an a la carte three month subscription for users who just want the app, especially those outside the San Diego area. My guess is it might be priced in the neighborhood of $5 a month. But there will also be bundles for people who want seven-day delivery or three-day weekend delivery.

We’ll see whether The U-T pulls the trigger on a firewall for the app. Several other publishers have announced plans to charge but haven’t done so.

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