[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.]
I got this off another news clip service I’m on…
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.