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.