NYTimes reader

[editor's note: The New York Times released a new software reader. It is Windows only. No Mac compatibility at this time. We asked Christine Boese, of serendipit-e.com, to post her thoughts on the matter.]

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I got this off another news clip service I’m on…

NYT Finally Creates a Readable Online Newspaper (Slate)

Jack Shafer: About six months ago, I canceled my New York Times subscription because I had found the newspaper’s redesigned Web site to be superior to the print Times. I’ve now abandoned the Web version for the New York Times Reader, a new computer edition that has entered general beta release.

I went around to try to sign up for it and get a look. I couldn’t, because the Times IT dept overlooked making its beta available for Macs. I scanned through the screenshots, tho, and the comments on the blog preview of features, sneek peek #1 and #2.
Jack Shafer isn’t exactly an expert in interactive design, so I don’t know if his endorsement means anything other than, "Gee whiz, here’s a neato new thing!".
My initial impressions are that it looks like the International Herald Tribune
with a horizontal orientation I just can’t stand (the Herald Tribune often requires horizontal scrolling, and it’s far easier to read the printable version of stories). Yes, I see there is a narrow screen screenshot, but I’m thinking more about the text flow nightmares this design must cause.
But I think I have bigger reservations about the entire concept behind the Times Reader beta.
Here’s just a summary of questions I’d want answered, if I were actually able to test the beta:

  1. How is re-creating a facsimile of a print newspaper online a step forward for interactive media? Is it really, or is it just a kind of "horseless carriage" retrenchment? Shafer talks about some non-print-like pages that tell you what you’ve read or haven’t read, to assist browsing and search, but notes that the archives are thin. I wonder if the Times "Most Popular" feature makes the cut.
  2. Code. The big deal here is that it uses Microsoft .NET and advancers on Vista technology. I smell a walled garden. Is this XML-compatible? RSS-enabled? Is it even in HTML code that can be easily copied and pasted? (Shafer’s piece says it can be, but I want to see for myself) W3 validated? Does its content management system have permalinks? How do bookmarks work?
  3. Hyperlinks. Will the text accomodate them? Will the Times use them? Or by anchoring themselves firmly in a "reader" technology, perhaps a completely web-independent application, is the Times trying to go beyond simply a code-walled garden and also create a strong CONTENT walled garden as well? Is this a variant of TimesSelect on speed?
  4. Audience. Presumably the Times has some research that shows a need to court its paper-bound print-loving audience to its online products by making the online products more like the print products.
  5. But my question about audience is this: is there a REASON to make heroic efforts to lure print readers online? Isn’t the bigger issue trying to keep print readers attached to print, so that the ad-driven print editions don’t have to go the way of the dinosaur? The online news audience is already massive, and (Pew, Poynter) studies show that during the recent wars, large numbers of people were turning away from traditional news providers and outlets to seek out other sources of information, particularly international information, on the Internet and with news feed readers (RSS/Atom).
    So in a competitive online news landscape, the Times makes a strategic turn to become more like its print product? And this will lure large numbers of online news readers back exclusively to the Times exactly HOW? Especially if it is a walled garden that doesn’t integrate well into the Blogosphere or in RSS news feed readers?
    People like Terry Heaton and other media consultants (Heaton has a terrific blog, if you haven’t found it yet) are going out and telling traditional news media outlets that they have to move more strongly into an environment of UNBOUND media, to make their products more maleable for an unbound Internet environment. It appears the Times is not a company that has purchased Heaton’s services lately.

  6. Usability and Design. I’ve already mentioned the Mac incompatiblity. What other usability and design issues are present in this Times Reader technology? I’ll leave that to people who actually get use it.

From the screenshots I’ve seen, there seems to be very little functionality or interactive user-customizable features at all. I don’t know. Color me stupid, but my gut reaction is that this is nothing more than another variant of the exact PDF version of the paper that the Times put out, only perhaps with better text searching features and dynamic text flow (meaning I’d bet it is XML-based instead of PDF-based, only with some custom-built or Microsoft-blessed walled garden DTD).
You know, for the money the Times spent on this (and the experienced journalists the Times Group laid off this past year), I’d have thought the best use of resources for a big media company would be to develop a really KILLER RSS feed reader, one that finally gets over the usability threshold that keeps feed readers in "Blinking 12-land" for most casual Internet users.
I mean, I know there are a lot of good feed readers out there (I favor Bloglines myself), but have any of you tried to convert non-techie co-workers into using a feed reader lately? I can’t for the LIFE of me figure out why there’s so much resistance to something so purely wonderful and empowering, something I believe is clearly the killer app on par with the first Mosaic browser in 1993. But because feed readers caught on bottom up instead of top down, there’s not only usability problems for the broadest audiences, there’s also a void at the top of the technology industry, by companies that fail to catch on to the RSS vision, mainly because they didn’t think it up themselves.

6 thoughts on “NYTimes reader

  1. bowerbird

    as a mac person, i hope this latest
    uni-platform effort from microsoft
    does a face-splat like ms-reader did.
    but let’s actually use the software
    before we give it a bad review, ok?
    sheesh!
    -bowerbird

    Reply
  2. Kevin

    The Times Reader is a significant step forward in on-screen text presentation, readability and usability. Your issues, one at a time:
    Print Facsimile – Not really
    The Times Reader smartly (it’s a brand after all) incorporates the branding, styling of the print edition (e.g. typography, colors, overall look and feel). But that’s about the extent of it. Sections and articles are in columns and pages using new layout technology that scale and adapt to screen size and resolution – but that’s more about usability and making use of the entire screen rather than trying to replicate the paper medium.
    RSS. The Times Reader is powered by an RSS 2.0 feed with extensions for presentation. The content, with ads, is cached for offline use as well.
    Code. The Times already has a successful Web site and a very popular set of RSS feeds. This is something different. The Times Reader is essentially a very rich RSS reader where the content experience is specifically designed for Times readers.
    Hyperlinks. Hyperlinks are everywhere throughout this Reader. Since the content can be found on its accompanying Web site, any single article can be opened in the browser as well.
    Usability and Design. This reader provides a much more usable and readable experience than today’s alternatives. It’s a big claim but it’s backed up by usability studies. Users strongly prefer this model to the text presentation found in the current browsers for example. Users also retain more information and read for longer periods. Columns, ClearType, Pagination, Hyphenation, Seamless navigation, Zoomable layouts, etc all contribute to a highly readable, easy-to-use experience.
    Interactivity. The app is still in beta and many more features are planned before its release but you can find a number of interactive features already. For example, you can comment (with ink or text) on text and share that with friends. The highlighted text is captured and the comment is recreated and rendered for others exactly as it was written. You can click on “topics” for any article and find related articles via the Search feature and “Topic Explorer”. You can peruse the news via Pictures /Photos or via the “What’s Read” feature. Stay tuned for more features. Feel free to make feature suggestions to the Times as well.

    Reply
  3. bowerbird

    well, gee, i’m not really sure i want to
    have this discussion in the context of
    these cramped little comment boxes,
    especially since my posts are often
    delayed for days before they appear…
    but since kevin has showed up here…
    > Sections and articles are in columns
    > and pages using new layout technology
    > that scale and adapt to screen size
    > and resolution – but that’s more about
    > usability and making use of the entire screen
    > rather than trying to replicate
    > the paper medium.
    this is nice-sounding and all, but i’m sorry,
    it just doesn’t sync up with the screenshots.
    the reason paper-newspapers are so dense is that
    the economics of the physical medium require it.
    but there’s simply no reason for an e-newspaper
    to be _nearly_ as congested as your screenshots.
    white-space is a luxury that costs us _nothing_.
    indeed, there’s no reason — once the person
    is reading a specific article — for there to be
    any other unrelated article on the screen at all.
    and while a person is “browsing the headlines”,
    there’s no reason for anything _except_ those
    headlines and subheads to be present on-screen.
    perhaps your screenshots are unrepresentative
    – totally — of the way your program works.
    if that’s the case, you picked them very poorly.
    but if they _do_ illustrate your user-interface,
    i’m afraid your design leaves much to be desired.
    > Usability and Design. This reader provides
    > a much more usable and readable experience
    > than today’s alternatives. It’s a big claim
    > but it’s backed up by usability studies.
    um, that’s not “a big claim” at all…
    > Users strongly prefer this model
    > to the text presentation found in
    > the current browsers for example.
    …it’s more like damning with faint praise.
    the web-browser stinks as a reading interface,
    whether for books, newspapers, or magazines.
    (and that’s sad and ironic, since a big part of
    why people are _on_ the web is to do reading.)
    ***
    i’m still working on book-related programs,
    but i’ll soon bring those apps to a plateau;
    then i’ll start working on e-newspaper apps,
    and i’ll show you guys how to do that right…
    it’s very nice to see you believe in your app,
    kevin, and i do like the noises you’re making,
    because they mean once you see something
    that achieves those objectives even _better_
    than your app does, you will appreciate it…
    -bowerbird
    p.s. the design part of that equation is easy.
    when e-newspapers will _really_ get interesting
    is when we put in some collaborative filtering.
    (and no, the people at digg and reddit do not
    have that part wired either. at least, however,
    they’re working in the correct direction, unlike
    microsoft and the new york times at present…)

    Reply
  4. Kevin

    Well I disagree (as it seems do the overwhelming majority of users who’ve used it thus far) but I won’t argue with you. It sounds like you’ve got it all figured out. Can’t wait to see your totally amazing app!
    Btw, WPF (Windows Presentation Framework) is platform and the Reader is an implementation with a specific design implementation.

    Reply
  5. bowerbird

    kevin said:
    > It sounds like you’ve got it all figured out.
    > Can’t wait to see your totally amazing app!
    sure thing! :+)
    and actually, i do wish i could see
    _your_ totally amazing app as well,
    since i’m sure it’ll beat a browser.
    too bad it doesn’t run on the mac…
    -bowerbird

    Reply
  6. bowerbird

    since thanksgiving was just last week…
    i’m always grateful for an opportunity to say
    “i was wrong”, because it happens so rarely… ;+)
    i was on a p.c. machine recently, so i took the
    chance to look at the “new york times reader”,
    and i’m happy to say that microsoft will _not_
    need my lessons to do an e-newspaper viewer.
    they’ve done a really nice job on this offline app,
    and yes, it certainly does blow the browser away.
    (again, not that that is difficult, but nonetheless…
    ajax people, if you think you can top this interface,
    or even match it, try. if you succeed, i’d be amazed.)
    i only had about an hour for a casual observation
    (and it took 20 minutes to install the framework),
    but for the most part, i was favorably impressed…
    navigation was cursor-key smooth, the articles were
    (fairly) nicely typeset (but headlines still need work),
    and the organization of the newspaper was first-rate.
    (although i didn’t appear to get the whole she-bang.)
    i didn’t have time to try out other capabilities
    (like search and changes in window-size/resolution)
    that could still be fatal flaws, but this first glance
    certainly proved that the app deserves further review.
    the advertisements are too aggressively in-your-face,
    but i suspect that’s the entire point of this exercise.
    (given the understated nature of google’s text-only ads,
    and their apparent success as evidenced by google profit,
    i’d expect advertisers will eventually lower the screams.
    but, um, yes, that might well be some wishing thinking.)
    it’s still a shame this program won’t appear on the mac
    or linux, and i wouldn’t buy a p.c. (even a cheap one)
    just to read the new york times (even if i did read it)…
    but if i had a spare p.c. sitting around, i _would_ use it
    (without a doubt) instead of going to the n.y.t. website.
    so yeah, kevin does have a right to be proud of this viewer.
    now if they could put some collaborative filtering in it…
    -bowerbird

    Reply

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