Reading The News: The Future Of The Newspaper

In Overload!, I examine how my newspaper reading habits have changed over the past decade.

Is this the Gazette's complete iPad edition?

The first real newspaper (Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien) was published in 1605 in Strasbourg, France, and, until recently, the primary means of conveying news to the world was indeed the newspaper.

Newspapers hit the Web in earnest in the 1990s but they were in many respects limited by the limitations of the Web browser in terms of formatting and that one had to be sitting in front of a computer to read them.

With the advent of the Kindle eBook reader and Apple iPad, how we get our newspaper has started to change.

I’ll focus first on the iPad experience since I’ve had the opportunity to study this in greater depth.

A daily newspaper or two for me was a daily habit since grammar school. Until recently, I always had both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal delivered to my front door. I first stopped the New York Times a little less than three years ago. I didn’t do it lightly, indeed I reasoned (with myself) that I was saving paper as most of the newspaper was going “unread” because the articles I was interested in I had already accessed online.

In designing their respective iPad interfaces, both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal started with a tabula rasa. The Wall Street Journal chose to go with iPad conventions in terms of the use of gestures. As a result, the experience the reader gets isn’t simply replicating the look and feel of the print paper, but in my opinion the interface is actually an improvement.

A Journal reader on the iPad can get the day’s paper or the most up-to-date news and swipe from article to article. The look and feel resembles the print edition but the images are far superior. Thanks to its intelligent use of gestures and scrolling, I find reading the Journal on the iPad more enjoyable and far more informative than reading the paper version. I can swipe between articles and sections. I also can close the article and return to the both front page of the “paper” or of each section by pinching the screen. And finally, I can also switch to the European or Asian edition with two taps, a feat that is not possible with the paper version.

On the other hand, I find that reading New York Times via its iPad app is an exercise in frustration thanks to a poor user interface that leaves me constantly wishing I had the actual paper in front of me. Ironically, one of the people sharing the stage with Steve Jobs at the launch of the iPad was Martin Nisenholtz, the head of the Times’ digital business unit. Nisenholtz even demoed an early version of the Times’ iPad app at the launch but the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Unfortunately, the Times’ app was more hype than substance.

Apple iPad users have given the Times’ app three out of five stars and more people (45.3%) gave it one star – “hated it” than any other. (This is a good rating compared to the Times’ iPhone app, which only garnered two stars. 65.3% of users who rated it gave it one star.)

Users of the Wall Street Journal app have given it a five-star rating (“it’s great”) and 65.4% users gave it five stars.

Apparently, the Times is having trouble abiding by its motto “All the news that’s fit to print” when it comes to the iPad. Not only does it seem as if a lot of news is missing in the iPad edition, but it’s not possible to go back to past editions (unlike the Wall Street Journal, which allows the reader to go back seven days).

A few days ago, the Times released version 2.0.7, which introduced article-to-article swipe. This is a small improvement although navigation is hindered since there is still no “main” page. What the Times considers to be the main page is what the editors have determined to be “Top News” stories. Today, there were 11. It’s also not possible to swipe from section to section (e.g. from Business Day to Technology). Switching sections requires clicking on the menu bar and then making a selection.

A significant problem with both apps is that, unlike on the Web, there is no search function, making it virtually impossible to find something one is looking for (of course, print newspapers lack search functionality as well but the newspapers’ Web sites do incorporate it, although these implementations are far from perfect).

The newfound popularity of tablet computers could mean a renaissance for newspapers – if the newspapers seize the opportunity and provide functionality that exceeds both the paper and Web experiences. Until that happens, however, you’ll find me bypassing the New York Times in favor of newspapers that see fit to print all the news with an app to match.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization

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