Two weeks ago, I assessed the readability ofthe electronic editions of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Timesin this “Press Box” column. If you’re joining the discussion late, electronic editions differ from standard Web renditions of newspapers: Rather than throwing up individual stories from a long list of headlines, they impose the complete look and feel of a print newspaper on the confines of a computer monitor. Oh, and the publishers charge for electronic editions—$120 a year for the Washington Post and $300 for the New York Times. Meanwhile, the Web versions of both newspapers are free.
I found lots to admire about the electronic editions—storing several weeks’ worth of your favorite newspapers on your hard disk in searchable form is very convenient. But I mostly complained about the fit: Reading electronic editions of newspapers makes you feel like a fat man trapped inside a size-too-small iron suit, I wrote, concluding that few subscribers would switch from paper to electronic editions for the price break (between 30 percent and 50 percent), and fewer still would find the electronic editions compelling enough to abandon the straight Web versions. The software, I argued, is too rudimentary. And today’s hardware isn’t up to the task: The resolution of even the best monitors isn’t as good as newsprint. I ended up suggesting that readers wait a couple of years for Version 3 of the software and better monitors to arrive.
On the surface, Florida Today and the Guardian are very similar to their electronic edition genre-mates. Both display PDF images of each print-edition page; both allow readers to page through the “paper” with mouse clicks, skip forward to a desired section, or zero in on a subject with the search function. Click a specific story, and the software summons readable text.
What sets Florida Today and the Guardian apart from the pack is the way they preserve the basic navigation principles of a daily newspaper. Most electronic editions swamp the screen with a PDF of a newsprint page or two. But Florida Today and the Guardian put a PDF of the page the left and a list of HTML headlines from the page on the right. Click the story on the PDF page and copy renders promptly on the right in either PDF form or HTML, depending on how you set your preferences.
It hardly sounds revolutionary, but displaying the newsprint page next to the enlarged stories makes a huge contextual difference. Habitual newspapers readers generally read their newspapers as a total unit, or at least one section at a time, and the placement and size of an article provides a wealth of useful information: Is it a column, a news story, a feature, an editorial, etc.? Is it from the “Science” section or the “Home” section? Is it above the fold, and therefore the biggest news, or is it below the fold, therefore not as urgent?
Much of this contextual information is lost on straight Web versions, and though they try, electronic versions don’t do much better. Click a story in the electronic Washington Post or New York Times, and it balloons out to monopolize most of the screen’s real estate, overwhelming the article’s context. To read you must pan, scroll, and resize the window, and then pan and scroll and resize all over again at the jump. Try the Washington Postand New York Timesdemos and free trials, and you’ll see what I mean: It’s maddening!
Florida Today and the Guardian quiet the mind by simplifying things. Both require much less mousing, scrolling, and panning, and the trusty page view on the left makes orientation to the whole paper a breeze. Both let readers chose between PDF and plain HTML renderings of a story (the New York Times sticks you with PDF only), and neither requires readers to download special software for viewing (the evil electronic New York Times again).
The electronic Florida Today is assembled with software from Tecnaviawhile the electronic Guardian was developed in-house. Florida Today offers a free demo that lets you read the “A” sections from the last two weeks; the Guardian serves a single select back issue for inspection. E-subscriptions to either cost just north of $200 a year.
If pressed to give a best-in-show award, I’d give the nod to the electronic Guardian for its superior, simple, and self-explanatory navigation. This is one electronic edition that doesn’t need a user’s manual. Printing stories, e-mailing them, displaying pages in PDF, and searching keywords are all very easy in the electronic Guardian. But Florida Today isn’t far behind.
Meanwhile, the other electronic editions are improving. Since I last wrote, the New York Times—my least favorite e-edition—has liberated its subscribers to cut and paste from articles for filing or e-mailing. And a new toolbar lets you read from within an Internet browser rather than inside the proprietary Newsstandsoftware. Nice going, Times. Please keep fiddling with it until you get it right.
As I click my way through the various electronic editions, I can’t help but wonder if my insistence on consuming the newspaper in something approximating its original context marks me as a dinosaur. (Quick answer: It does.) Surveys show that younger readers aren’t picking up the newspaper habit at the same rate as their parents. They seem not to care about the newspaper gestalt, preferring instead to assemble their news fix with a link from here, a visit to Drudge, some TV and radio news, and a pinched section of somebody’s newspaper at Starbucks. So if electronic editions are the future of newspapers, perhaps publishers should shape them to appeal to young readers rather than old fogies.
Perhaps electronic editions should concentrate on improving upon the architecture of the daily newspaper, not merely mimicking it. As I’ve written before, electronic edition subscriptions should come bundled with generous privileges for searching back issues. Publishers might consider cross-pollinating their archives, allowing, say, Post electronic subscribers to dip into the archives of the Chicago Tribune and vice versa. Ideally, the electronic edition should be “live” as long as a reader maintains an Internet connection, automatically updating itself 24-seven and even ringing like the old-time Associated Press wire if an extremely important story moves. (Importance could be set by the reader or the e-edition editors or both.) Software developers at Microsoft (which publishes Slate) and others, such as the brains at Findory.com, have created programs that “remember” what you’ve read and build Web links based on those news choices. If I were paying for an e-edition, I’d want such an automated customizing feature.
I’ve got more ideas—some for advertising, some for video—but I’ve run out of time. If you’ve got a notion about building the perfect electronic edition, drop me e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be writing about this subject again. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)