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New York Times Mobile App Plans to Dumb Readers Into Addiction

I’m a somewhat regular news reader. I’m not in any way obsessed or addicted – I can go a couple of days without checking the news on my computer or iPhone – but I do like to keep up with what’s going on. (Those who are obsessed with following the news might want to read Alain de Botton’s recent book, The News: A User’s Manual (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) to get a bit of perspective.)

I’m also a long-time reader of the New York Times. Back in the day, I used to read it on “paper,” and looked forward to getting the massive Sunday Times to read with brunch, bagels and coffee. In later years, I’ve followed the Times on the web, and found it to be a generally (though not always) reliable source of news.

When the New York Times launched digital subscriptions, its pricing kept me from reading it much. While I do think that newspapers (and their web sites) should not be free, I think the Times went too far. Not only do they have three different prices – one for web and smartphone access, one for web and tablet access, and one for “all digital” access – but it’s too expensive. Since I read news on at least two devices, I’d have to pay $8.75 a week, or a whopping $455 a year. Nope, that’s not going to happen.

But the New York Times is doubling down. They’ve announced a new app at SXSW which, for $8 a month, will provide “a curated feed of stories with specially crafted blurbs of key points, allowing readers to scroll down without tapping to get an idea of the most important news of the moment.” In other words, big pictures and a few words. Users will be able to click through and actually “read” the news as well, but the goal is to just blurb people into submission.

The New York Times has certainly lost its way. Not only is this a pedestrian idea, but the goal is to “addict” people to the news; executive editor Jill Abramson said, “I really believe that we will be, and I hate to use the word addicting, but addict a whole new audience to the New York Times.” This is exactly what de Botton talks about in his book, when he says, “We are in danger of getting so distracted by the ever-changing agenda of the news that we wind up unable to develop political positions of any kind. We may lose track of which of the many outrages really matters to us and what it was that we felt so passionately about only hours ago.” The New York Times is diluting the news in shiny, trying to get people “addicted,” rather than trying to inform. It’s lost its way.

I use Flipboard to read the news on my iPhone and iPad. It’s not great – it doesn’t have as many good sources as I’d like – but at least it lets you read full articles and keep up with what’s going on. I’d very much like to have a single, reliable source to read the news, but with the current pricing, and the future dumbing down of the news, that source won’t be the New York Times.

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The Paywall Problem: Newspapers and Occasional Readers

I believe in newspapers, and depend on them to get news. I’m from a generation that had only newspapers – and pre-cable TV news – for daily information, and I still think they are important. I read a lot of news on the web, on many different sites, but I still depend mostly on newspaper websites to know what’s happening. (And I buy a “newspaper,” the print kind, every Sunday.)

Many newspapers have introduced paywalls, or paid access. The New York Times was the first major paper to do this, but their misguided pricing strategy (different prices depending on whether you want to read the paper on the web and a smartphone, or web and tablet) and high prices ($15 to $35 every four weeks) make it very expensive. The Washington Post is smarter; they offer the same price ($15 per four weeks) regardless of which device you want to use. Other papers have other byzantine approaches, instead of a simple one-time annual fee. The Wall Street Journal actually did this, in the early days of their paywall: they charged $50 a year for full access.

Paywalls for newspapers are inevitable, but they need to be implemented differently. Recently, I wanted to read a couple of articles on different newspaper sites. One was on the Wall Street Journal’s web site. This is a paper that I don’t read often, but I came across an article about William Faulkner’s literary estate that interested me. The Wall Street Journal has some good non-business coverage, but there’s no way that I’ll ever subscribe to it, as I’m not interested in 99% of what they publish.

The second article I wanted to read was about Shakespeare, and was on the Le Monde website. I was able to read a few paragraphs of the article, but would have needed to pay €2 to read the entire thing; in other words, more than the cost of a daily paper. (Le Monde charges €15 a month for digital access.)

The problem in both of these cases is that I’ll never become a regular reader of either of these papers. I used to live in France, but I don’t any more, and French news, which interests me, is not worth that much. And, as I said above, I don’t care enough about business news to pay for the Wall Street Journal.

So how can I read articles I want to see? Many people have discussed the idea of micro-payments, and the news industry is certainly one sector that needs them. I’d pay a nickel (or 5p) to read an article; considering the cost of a newspaper, that seems fair, especially since I’d still be seeing ads, and the newspaper would get revenue from that as well. But I wouldn’t buy, say, a credit for a paper like the Wall Street Journal, because I wouldn’t expect to use it often enough.

What we need is a broader micro-payment system for newspapers, and other print publications (I’d pay, say, a quarter, or 25p, to read a magazine article from the New Yorker). The ideal system would work with as many publications as possible, where you’d buy a credit, and be able to apply that credit to any participating publication. The idea isn’t new; it’s been floated by Walter Isaacson, The Wall Street Journal, and Google has set up such a system using Google Wallet, but I’ve never come across it in vivo.

For now, newspapers are shutting out readers, and losing money, by only offering expensive digital subscriptions, or by linking digital subscriptions to print subscriptions. It’s time for newspapers to realize that not everyone is wedded to their content, and that most people won’t pay for a specific paper, but want to read news from multiple sources. Micro-payments could change the way we consume news, and it could help keep newspapers afloat.

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New York Times To Impose Paywall

The New York Times announced today that as of March 28, full access to the newspaper’s web site will no longer be free. This is not a surprise, but what is a shock is the price. The Times offers three prices: for web and tablet access, it’s $20 a month. For web and smartphone access, it’s $15 a month. But for access using all three platforms, it’s $35 a month. That’s $420 a year to read the New York Times on multiple devices, a price that approaches the cost of a print subscription. (Full 7-day home delivery in New York City costs about $608 a year.)

Current home delivery subscribers will get full, free access to the digital content. Interestingly, it seems that even those who only subscribe to the New York Times Book Review at a cost of $91 a year get that access, as do those who get full weekly, weekday or weekend subscriptions. (I know someone who subscribes to the Book Review alone, at $1.75 a week. When they the page about the free access to the new digital version for home delivery, the texts there seemed to indicate that their subscription would give them free access.)

I’m all in favor of paying for news. I think it’s important, and I think the “free” experiment we’ve been living with for years has greatly hurt the ability of newspapers to provide quality news. But even just for web and tablet ($260 a year) or web and smartphone ($195) access, I find these prices to be too high. I’d gladly pay, say, $100 a year to access the New York Times web site, but I can’t see committing to much more than that. Especially because even subscribers will still see ads! It’s also worth noting that even those subscribers paying $455 will have to pay more for crosswords, if they wish to have online access to them. And, one more thing, they really need to improve their crappy iPad app to give value to tablet subscriptions.

Granted, all users will be able to read 20 articles a month, and some trickery will allow them to read articles if the enter the site via links on other sites. But many users will simply go to other sites. This was bound to happen no matter what the cost, but this high pricing scheme will certainly turn off a great many readers (such as myself) who would be willing to pay for content on the site.

My guess is that this will be a resounding failure. The New York Times has already sent out e-mails to existing users saying, “As a loyal reader of NYTimes.com, you will receive a special offer to save on our new digital subscriptions,” and I think many people, with a “special offer” will try out the service. But I think the New York Times is pricing themselves out of the market.

Time will tell, but on March 28, I think the New York Times is in for a surprise.

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Thoughts on the iPad-Only Newspaper The Daily

To much fanfare yesterday, The Daily was announced by Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corp., together with Eddy Cue, Apple vice president of Internet services. This is the first iPad-only daily news organ, and it represents, apparently, some $30 million in investment.

The Daily states that it was “built from scratch for the iPad,” and it shows. It takes advantage of a number of iPad features, includes 360-degree photos, videos, and even games, to provide a truly unique form of information. At one point, a photo zooms out, at another point a tap on a photo plays a video report, and at yet another, a small box shows the latest tweets on a topic.

But for all these innovations, The Daily is a crappy newspaper with little real news. The first issue has a cover story about the demonstrations in Egypt, a story about the snowstorms in the US, and not much else in the way of news. Most of the rest of the paper is gossip, fashion pictures, horoscopes, an advice column, movie reviews and games. Okay, there are a couple of short editorials, but they’re stuck in between gossip and fashion, and don’t say much anyway. There’s a lot of attention to sports; notably to the Super Bowl, which, it so happens, is on News Corp.-owned Fox TV this coming Sunday.

The sports section is, in fact, the largest part of the first issue of The Daily, suggesting the type of audience the newspaper is targeting: those who don’t care about news. After all, one of the biggest stories of the year – the Egypt demonstrations, and the day that Hosni Mubarak announced that he would not seek reelection – gets a total of five pages, of which about one page is text. One other page talks about demonstrations in neighboring Arab countries. Then another page talks about Mubarak’s son and “trophy wife.” (That one is a three-page article with one page worth of text.)

Frankly, if you were to print all of this out, it would probably make a total of 6-8 pages of a New York Times-sized newspaper. Not much news for a buck.

So a lot of hoopla for news designed for people who don’t read news. The content of The Daily is roughly what you get in European cities for free: newspapers like 20 Minutes in France and other countries, distributed for free near subway stations and in city centers, offer more news than The Daily. They, too, contain very little serious news, and are designed, as the name suggests, to be read in 20 minutes. The Daily seems to be targeting people who think that Reader’s Digest is something worth reading. My guess is, though, that the people who spend what they do to buy an iPad are a bit more educated than those who would consider the content of The Daily to be worthwhile.

If you don’t have an iPad, you can see some screenshots of The Daily on the paper’s blog. This gives a good idea of the share of the paper that covers “real” news; as of this writing, only one of the screenshots shows a news story, while the rest cover the “meat” of the paper: ephemera.

But they got the interface right. I hope others will see what The Daily has been done and improve their own news apps. I would very much like to have a daily “paper” on my iPad, but it has to have real news, not this kind of crap.

Update: today’s second issue has a tad more news, but I counted 25 pages of sports, mostly about the Super Bowl (on Fox TV), and the gossip/fashion/lifestyle crap is nearly as much.

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Dear New York Times: I Would Like to Pay for Your News, Please

So I got my iPad today. I’m impressed. (See the post below.)

But one thing I want to do is use it to read the news. As I wrote a while ago on Macworld, I think there are great opportunities to get people to pay for content – news and other types of web information – using this device.

So I downloaded the New York Times’ “Editors’ Choice” app, and I’m very disappointed. First, by the ads; there aren’t too many, yet, because this is new. But I’m sure there will be more. Second, by the limited number of stories available. I don’t want to read web sites with the iPad, unless they’re optimized for the device; but dedicated apps make sense.

However, if you don’t provide more news and no ads – for a fee – this app is essentially worthless. I don’t only want to read the stories you include, I want to read a lot of your stories (such as book reviews, but also stories from the archives).

So, please improve this app, then come up with a fair price. I’ll sign up right away.

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Why Haven’t Online Newspapers Gotten it Right?

Like most Internet users, I get a lot of news from web sites: whether newspapers, magazines or TV channels, the main purveyors of information are the leading media brands. I read the New York Times, the Washington Post, Le Monde, along with other media web sites, and subscribe to RSS feeds for dozens of others. (And that’s just for “hard” news, not for tech-related subjects.)

I’ve watched, over the years (I’ve been using the Internet since 1995), as these media have first staked out their territory, then expanded their presence, then attempted to develop their online offerings to compete with others. Yet throughout these ten years, and through the many variations in web sites, I don’t understand why online newspapers can’t get it right.I’m a reader–I read lots of books, subscribe to many magazines, and read a lot on the web. I’m also a follower of news–local and international, partly because, as a lapsed American living in France, US news is for me, by its very nature, international. But I’m also very interested in history and politics, and find it essential to keep up-to-date with the major issues and conflicts occurring around the world.

While much of my reading is done on dead-tree media (books and magazines), it is too onerous for me to subscribe to a newspaper (on paper): the only solution I would have, at least for an English-language source, is the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times), which, at €355 a year, is out of my league. Yet I would like to have a paper newspaper to read each day, because online newspapers just don’t cut it.

The advantages to online media are many: their ability to be up-to-the-minute, their flexibility, and their customizability are all prime reasons to use them. But these same features are their downfall: readers of online media don’t all see the same news, since they can customize what they want to see, and since many newspaper web sites display stories according to what readers have seen before; stories may change from hour to hour, even from minute to minute, so different readers will see different versions of stories. (The advantage to this is that online newspapers can update stories for breaking news and changes, as well as corrections, but since, for most stories, such updates are not necessary, this is a moot point.) This means that if I read a story this morning, then go back to the web site, that story may no longer be visible, or it may have moved to a place where I cannot locate it. While newspapers (the paper ones) offer a fixed, daily dose of news that everyone shares, online newspapers tend to fragment the news into only what catches the eye.

And that last point is the one that makes online newspapers pale copies of their paper originals. Leafing through a paper newspaper, one sees headlines on each page, and may end up reading stories that would not be likely to show up when customizing a web site by subject and keyword. Instead of receiving a “customized” version of the news, you get all the news that’s fit to print (to coin a phrase). In this time of fragmentation, people tend to seek out media sources that fit their point of view, whereas a paper newspaper, by its very nature as a source of news for all readers, has to include as many viewpoints as possible. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the editorial pages of any paper.

When you read a newspaper, you use special strategies called “skimming” and “scanning” to navigate the pages. Skimming means you glance over pages until you find things you want to look at more closely, reacting to certain words or photos, and scanning is taking a closer look, reading for gist, or reading introductions and conclusions that give you more information and often help you decide whether you want to read an entire article. With online newspapers, however, you don’t have this option. You only see headlines–and they are often clipped to fit in a limited amount of space (the front page of the Washington Post is a good example of this: scroll down and see how short the headlines are under the different “sections”. The New York Times does this better, as their “headlines” can be longer, even covering several lines, but the fact remains that one only sees the headline, not an introduction, photo or other information. Also, both these newspapers seem to be obsessed by threes; they each show exactly three stories, no more, no fewer, under each section header. If there is more news, they’ll still show only three stories.

This is the case for all major online newspapers: with a goal of fitting as much “information” as possible on their main pages, they skimp and shut out their readers. They don’t realize that less can be more, nor do they think in terms of the way people read newspapers. Sure, reading the news on a web site is different from reading a newspaper, but not by much. Which is why the auto-generated Google News does it better; their stories show introductions, the first few dozen words of stories, allowing readers to have more context. However, the very nature of Google News, with its selection of stories by “computer algorithms, without human intervention” is the antithesis of any newspaper. Sure, Google claims that “news sources are selected without regard to political viewpoint or ideology, enabling you to see how different organizations are reporting the same story,” but rarely do opinion pieces show up on its pages, and only the most reported news appears. Quantity rules chez Google.

A newspaper is an institution that has a social contract to fulfill. In part, it must entertain and inform, but it must also provide a unity of the news it prints. For this reason, paper newspapers (or their brands) have a long future ahead of them. However, they need to rethink the way they present news and the navigational tools they provide to their readers. I don’t have any answer to this conundrum, I don’t know the best way to do this, but I do know that no newspaper I’ve read online gets things right. I want to be able to read the important news and the editorials, but also discover the stories that stay under the radar. I don’t want to only read those stories that I have selected, nor those that a newspaper has selected for me–I want to be able to see the full range of stories the newspaper publishes, and decide for myself.

But today’s newspaper web sites have too many links, too many stories, too much information (and way too many ads, including animated ads that make it all but impossible to read the text which is the essence of a newspaper) all on one page, with the idea that more is better. They can’t understand that there could be other ways of attracting readers to the diverse content they offer. While most of the newspapers do this very badly, I give my special bad layout award not to a newspaper, but to a magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, which I read on paper, for the way they seem to just dump so much on their main page. This site is horrendous, and looks as though it was designed by a committee.

But look at the New York Times or Washington Post, to cite only two “newspapers of record”. Their main pages are also a cacophony of links; hundreds of them, to stories, columns, sections, ads and more. It is virtually impossible to navigate any of these pages. For a really bad layout, see Le Monde, one of France’s newspapers of record: even if you read French, there is little hope that you’ll be attracted to anything in their miasma of links.

Why can’t newspapers do better? Part of this could be because of the way a newspaper itself is laid out: the goal is to squeeze as much as possible into a page, compromising the content (the news) to fit around the ads. On the web, this is less of a problem, but it is likely the same designers who don’t understand usability and don’t know how to envisage a web page as a visual unit. Salon, which was never a newspaper, does much better than any of the larger media because their designers are not of the column-inch breed. However, their layout is good only when you click a link to read an article; their main page is as hard to navigate as any newspaper’s.

What is needed is some way to approximate the leafing-through of pages that one does with a newspaper; to allow the serendipity of discovering a story you might otherwise have missed, and to see, at a glance, the scope of what has happened during a 24-hour period. Web sites should not simply replicate their paper cousins, but use today’s technology to improve upon the tradition of the print press.

As newspapers dumb down their presentation in order to fight the clickitis of modern readers, they do themselves a disservice, and end up killing off many of their potential readers. In addition, they fill their pages with annoying flashing, moving ads, which will scare off ever more readers, at least those who don’t use ad-blocking software. I don’t see the ads they expect me to blindly click on to pay for their services–I use software to block ads–and I don’t feel bad that I deprive newspapers of any such revenue, because those ads are so badly designed as to prevent reading. However, give me a good online newspaper, and I’ll be happy to pay for it. As long as there are no ads…

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