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Times Reader Transforms Online, Offline The New York Times on Screen
by
Posted On December 4, 2006
On Nov. 30, subscribers to The New York Times received an e-mail message encouraging them to try a new software application called Times Reader. At a time when newspapers struggle to compete with the Internet and other electronic media, Times Reader may tempt loyal readers of the print edition to get their daily Times fix on a laptop, desktop, or tablet PC.

This is not the first time The New York Times Co. has explored online distribution. In the 1970s, The Times experimented with electronic delivery. The Times partnered with Nexis to offer access to its archives. In 1992, The Times launched TimesFax, an eight-page, letter-sized edition targeted toward readers on cruise ships or in remote locations. The Times offers a substantial portion of its daily content on its Web site (http://nytimes.com) and now sells its most sought content under its TimesSelect program. (Print edition subscribers can get TimesSelect for free.) The Times partnered with Newsstand.com, which offers a variety of publications online in a digital format that faithfully replicates the layout of print editions.

The New York Times content is also syndicated to PDAs, to local newspapers, and to the International Herald Tribune.

Times Reader aspires to offer most of the daily paper in a format that makes it easy to navigate among articles and sections, with the bonus of syncing to a portable PC so you can read the paper at a coffee shop or on the train. The Newsstand edition of The Times is useful to someone such as an advertiser who seeks to see exactly what the paper looked like in print. Times Reader adapts to fit your laptop or tablet screen, making it easy to skim the headlines or skip through article by article.

Times Reader relies on Windows Presentation Foundation, which is technology built for the upcoming Windows Vista operating system and available in part as an upgrade for Windows XP. This, of course, means that Mac and Linux users can't come to the party. Microsoft and The Times announced the impending release of Times Reader at the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Seattle this past April. Microsoft said that it will offer a version of the presentation technology for Mac users in the future, and The Times said it will develop a version of Times Reader for Mac users when that happens.

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In the days since the launch of Times Reader, I've carefully compared the experience of reading The Times on paper versus using the software tool. As a daily reader of The Times since my freshman year of college in 1974, I've never found reading the paper on the Web remotely as efficient or satisfying. Once you understand the architecture of the print paper, it's just so much faster to skim the front page, the rest of Section A, and the other sections of interest.

To my great surprise, Times Reader is perhaps as efficient and satisfying as reading the print edition. It's different, of course: you're using a mouse or cursor keys to navigate amongst the articles. Yet the experience simulates reading a print newspaper surprisingly well. Of course, your computer screen is perhaps 8 x 10 inches—or a bit bigger if you have a 20-inch diagonal monitor. No matter how large your computer screen, it's much smaller than the print paper; today's Sunday Times in print measures 13.5 x 22 inches. (Watch carefully: Print newspapers are shrinking.) Times Reader offers the newspaper home page pretty much as you'd expect. Navigation is simple; use the cursor keys. Hit the down arrow to read the rest of the current article, or use the left or right arrow to page amongst articles. A menu of sections appears at the top of the screen.

Times Reader resizes the layout of articles nicely to accommodate your chosen window or screen size up to your physical limit. Sometimes the software makes some amusing choices with hyphenation, but the resizing is usually sensible. Printing articles works surprisingly well; the text and images are resized nicely to fit 8.5 x 11, unlike printing Web pages, which always seems to inevitably print at least one extra page.

Times Reader offers the ability to annotate and save copies of articles. You can highlight sections, draw a comment using the mouse, and type a textual note referring to a passage in an article. Presumably you can keep a file saved to your hard drive indefinitely. Files are saved with a .tic extension; one wonders if any application other than Times Reader will ever be able to read this format. (For instance, can you share a saved file with someone who hasn't installed Times Reader?)

The Times says that Times Reader will retain 7 days of The New York Times articles. It will be interesting to see how the Times Reader edition compares to the nytimes.com Web site. Will The Times limit some material to subscribers, as it does today with its TimesSelect offering? It's hard to imagine that they might give away most read writers such as Thomas Friedman or Frank Rich for free via this software app, while requiring Web readers to become paying customers.

There are flaws. For instance, violating Jakob Nielsen's basic rule, "Search" is a link, not a search box. Headlines are titled with capricious divergence from the print edition; why on earth should the Times Reader edition post "Imports Spurring Push To Subsidize Produce" instead of "More Farmers Seek Subsidies as U.S. Eats Imported Produce"? (The Times recently revealed that headline writers try to tweak for the Web. It is hard to see how the former headline improves upon the latter.)

One of the most important sports stories of the year made the national print edition, yet didn't make the Times Reader version. To everyone's surprise, this weekend, the University of Southern California's football team lost to the University of California-Los Angeles, forcing yet another Bowl Championship Series conundrum. The print Times has the story, the Times' Web site has it under "The 5th Down," and Times Reader misses it entirely.

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Shockingly, one of the most basic rules of The Times front page is not observed on the Times Reader home page. The most important article today, "Rumsfeld Memo Proposed ‘Major Adjustment' in Iraq," is not in its proper place in the upper-right corner. In fact, this major news story broken by The Times, quoted on This Week on ABC and elsewhere, doesn't even appear on the Times Reader home page.

Times Reader lets you schedule a time for your computer to sync with the mother ship, but it doesn't offer an obvious way to do so right now. It appears that a refresh icon in the upper-right corner of the screen performs this function. This should be obvious, not obscure; syncing on demand is a basic function that Palm and AvantGo understood many years ago.

Loyal daily readers of The Times may not want to admit this, but Times Reader may signal the beginning of the deconstruction of The Times. The recording industry has long struggled with the issue of albums versus singles. The MP3 revolution may have ended the notion of record albums. Similarly, we may be headed toward an era where the newspaper—the collection of articles under a brand we trust—fades away. Soon we may think of the newspaper as not on paper, and we may care more about the best news articles or the most read Maureen Dowd or Paul Krugman opinion pieces as we care about the newspaper's corpus in toto. Just look at the list of most e-mailed articles.


Richard W. Wiggins is an author and speaker who specializes in Internet topics.  He is a senior information technologist at the computer center at Michigan State University.

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