Critiquing the Times Reader or: They still don’t get it

The big news from the New York Times today was the release of Times Reader, their cross platform application for reading the news. Built on the Adobe AIR framework it attempts to provide a solution for reading the Times on Mac, Windows, and Linux.

A lot has been made about the efforts by the Times to adapt to a digital model for news that is profitable. Many see the Times Reader as a step toward distributing content in a way that could provide for the ability to better monetize content. Here’s the reality though: the Times Reader represents just one more step taken by the New York Times that illustrates how this company just doesn’t get online news.

A misunderstanding of reading on the web

An article in the Times Reader

The narrow columns make reading an article block-like and tiring.

The Times apparently worked extremely hard to get the app to mimic the look of the print edition. While this may be understandable, since the print edition is the shining example of what made the New York Times the pillar of American journalism that it likes to think it is, it ultimately shows an utter disregard for how content is read on a computer screen.

The narrow columns create a line length that just appears block-like and is quite frankly hard to read. While narrow columns may be great to quickly scan a story excerpt they are awful for any sustained article. They tire the eyes and in my opinion break up the flow of the text.

Irrelevant Advertisements

While reading I was presented with three text ads. Not one was remotely relevant.

While reading I was presented with three text ads. Not one was remotely relevant.

Also, the Times has incorporated advertisements into these articles as well as on the section pages. Right now many of these ads are for NY Times services, but one presumes that in the future they’ll be for corporate ads. The article to the right included Google text ads toward the end. A screenshot is to the left.

While reading an article about cadets training in cyber war games I was presented with three ads:

  1. I could find out about the shocking secret that coffee companies don’t want me to know
  2. I could help save lives through providing medical aid support in Burma
  3. I could get a “unique” MBA focused on IOs and NGOs

Not one of these ads is remotely connected to the content of the article. There’s no question that the Times won’t make money off of a digital business model like this one because it’s not providing anything relevant to the reader.

Decontextualized Multimedia

In addition, the Times Reader application has two sections underneath all of the other content sections that are titled “News in Video” and “News in Pictures.” What may I ask is the purpose of these?

Decontextualized multimedia is useless.

Decontextualized multimedia is useless.

If I want to see multimedia about a subject I’m going to want some context. Sure, you could show me a nice large photo of a Pakistani religious group burning an effigy of Obama, but I should not have to click away from that page to read more about the situation.

If the Times is going to present photos and video out of the context that they are produced within then they might as well not produce that multimedia because without its context and depth its useless to me.

Content behind the paywall

Walling of content is not a solution.

Walling of content is not a solution.

As part of the Times’ ideas about making money from this application they seem to have taken the approach of walling some content off behind a paywall. For $3.95 a month you can receive full access to the content within the application. This yet again shows a complete misunderstanding of the web and of the situation that news organizations now find themselves in.

Sure, $3.95 is not that large of a payment, but this kind of mindset is still rooted in treating articles as limited commodities. Why would I pay for the access to this content when it’s available for free on the Times’ website or I could find a similar piece elsewhere?

Were the Times Reader to provide something above and beyond the traditional website, perhaps an experience that is unique to the application, then I might consider paying this fee. As it stands now though the only thing that this does is aggregate articles in one place: my RSS reader can do that and then take me to the full article free of charge on the main website.

Ultimately for all the fancy effects, time, and effort that went into creating this app it fails at creating any type of a sustainable model for news. It appears to be the product of a news organization and staff that is firmly rooted in the ideology of print journalism. The Times Reader does not feel like an amazing experience of reading a newspaper in a digital format; rather, it seems like a desperate attempt at transferring the print experience online.

This is the New York Times’ greatest failing here. They have failed to recognize the fundamental differences between digital and print. Until they do I cannot foresee them creating anything that justifies reading the news through this or the  $3.95 a month subscription fee.


Suzanne Yada says:

Hey Andrew. I actually am a paid home delivery subscriber, so I have the full features. And you’re not missing a whole lot.

I agree with most of your points here. It’s a pretty pointless app. Maybe I’m not in their target market for this, because I do prefer reading news on my mobile — less distractions, less clutter, portable and delivered in easy-to-digest chunks. I guess other people may not like that and still prefer reading it on a bigger screen with column layouts.

The sad thing is that the NYT DOES understand multimedia, perhaps more than any other news outlet in existence right now. They’re just not getting the other things about online news reading that makes this project a failure. Separate places for video and pics? Boo. And what about their other amazing interactive media projects? Guess you have to go back to the site for those.

The reader is also just too oversimplified. What if I want to “save” or clip an article to my hard drive? Can’t do it in Reader, but you can do it on the Web. Just click “Save as.”

I will correct one point of yours — Yes, they do target their ads. I just read a story on credit card debt and conveniently saw a banner ad for a credit card. But that infuriates me much more to the point where I’d prefer irrelevant advertising.

This whole venture was not a way to make it more convenient for readers, though it tries to market itself as that. It’s all about moolah. Of course, they’re trying to sell subscriptions to this “new” newspaper format (which may or may not sell, who knows), but more importantly, the Reader is a way to make online display ads behave more like print ads, and therefore cost the same as print ads. News orgs have been battling this online ad scarcity issue since the birth of the Internet, and as someone who would like to see the news industry sustain itself, I am kind of excited that someone is trying to bring back some scarcity to online advertising. (

The problem is, they’re trying it with a close-to-useless product.

Some people will buy into it, I’m sure. I’m just not one of them.

…though I will say the crossword feature is wicked cool.
That’s about it.

Andrew says:

Hi Suzanne. Thanks for the comment. I agree with you when you say that the NY Times DOES understand multimedia. Their videos and other projects are some of the best out there. Here it simply came down to an issue of packaging that content which they failed at.

Good to hear that some of the ads are more relevant. I’ll admit I only spent a short while using the app, but the ads I saw were irrelevant. Maybe it was just the articles or something, but it’s still inexcusable to have any ads that are as irrelevant as the ones above.

Also, totally in agreement about the crossword. 🙂

Here’s the angry mail I shot off to NYTimes:

The new Times Reader 2.0 is a DISASTER. On a Windows machine, have you ever done a juxtaposed comparison of the old and new Reader?

The new Reader isn’t remotely as legible. WPF beats ADOBE Air hollow. Since you’re in the news business, this surely shouldn’t be news to you.
The new Reader takes more time for news updates.
The new Reader takes far more memory. ADOBE Air applications are always bloated.
The new Reader has less reading space.
The new Reader bombards me with extremely annoying internal ads. and ads. by Google. When I’m paying you, I’m expecting you to remove the noise factor. You were…until now.
There’s no doubt in my mind that TR 2.0 is a regressive step. The only good thing about the new Reader is that it supports video.

I know these are desperate times for newspapers, but is the New York Times this desperate? It’s understandable that NYTimes is looking to broaden its reader base by making Times Reader more platform agnostic. However, as far as Windows readers are concerned, the new Reader is undeniably a raw deal. Maybe you could keep the old version available for Windows readers.

What worries me the most is the poor legibility of the new Reader. Even the browser makes for easier reading. Frankly speaking, I’ve made up my mind to unsubscribe when my current subscription expires next year. Using FeedDemon to subscribe to the free RSS feeds makes better sense. Wouldn’t you agree?

Deepanjan Nag

Joey Baker says:

Andrew – fantastic post:

I’ll echo what I said on Twitter: The problem with the times reader is that they’re still trying to make print design look like web design. They’re different mediums. Don’t try to shove the one into another!

Andrew says:

Thanks Joey. It seems to me that the only logical explanation for the Times’ stubborn insistence on making a digital medium look like print is that print was the defining characteristic of their success and legitimacy. They’re like a former sports star trying to latch onto their past glory days; never gonna happen though.

Yaniv says:

Version 2 seems to have removed a fundamental capability in 1.1 – the article index. It basically shows a lot fewer articles than the previous version.

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