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Four Fails and a FTW: The Old Gray Lady’s New Digital Clothes

2011 June 30

For once, the For The Win came first: for the first time since Nate Silver, The New York Times hired someone that makes you think they care about staying relevant.

I haven’t always had the best words for the newspaper of national record. Their coverage of music, at times, looks like the old couple trying, and failing, to do the hip young dance at a wedding. Bill Kristol, Sarah Palin’s biggest fan before she hit the 2008 Republican National Convention, was a paid writer for the Times for years. But the recent, and probably temporary, hiring of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who spends much of his days writing and blogging for The Atlantic, was a twist that I did not expect. Coates, at 36, has a strong voice and is as in touch with the culture as you can expect a political blogger to be.

The news of Coates’ signing up with the then-Bill Keller-helmed newspaper sold me on paying for The New York Times, as it offered a sign that I’d be consuming well over the twenty free articles per month, and that they deserved the investment of the audience. Granted, if they had hired Coates at any other time than Bob Herbert’s summer-long book-writing hiatus, which makes it smack of filling a quota, I would have been much more impressed.

Coates, photo: Liz Lynch/NYT

But once I paid the toll to enter, all of the problems in the current iteration of the Times’ iOS apps became glaringly obvious in quick fashion. Some are giant and stupid, while some are slight and mystifying. This is Four Fails and a FTW: The Gray Lady’s New Digital Clothes.

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Fail #1 The first time I booted up the app, I wanted to reread that weeks-old Jonathan Franzen essay about the shallowness of Facebook.[1] Almost everybody I follow on Twitter, Tumblr, and, well, Facebook vocalized how they got so much out of the essay, whereas I came away rather bored: it felt like an easy target, and not far from “Get off my lawn” territory. Whenever this happens, I’m willing enough to give the content in question a second chance. Inside the Times’ very well-designed iPad & iPhone apps, though, it was—and still is—nowhere to be found. I quickly realized that the content inside their apps is limited to the day’s releases. This is not good. Word of mouth and newspaper articles do not work in such a way.

The Fix: Currently, accessing a complete archive of the paper means switching to Safari and re-logging in, and as long as there are no other advantages to the web browser skin of the digitized Times, this is a wasteful and avoidable bandaid to the problem. Hopefully this will be a problem they solve in the long run with a style similar to the infinite-scrolling user interface that Tumblr blogs have popularized. Once you get to the bottom of a page, it automatically loads another page’s worth of material. In the Times iOS format, you browse articles by scrolling your finger from right to left on the screen, digitally (pun intended) leafing through the pages. Once it hits the wall of the content, the app could just access the older content by asking the server. The Times has already made that content, for the last few months, iOS ready, so it’s just a matter of their servers retaining old data.

Fail #2 Search. It’s the mechanism that most people access the internet through, and it’s for a lack of any search feature that I’d have to give the Times apps a failing grade. Maybe the developers, once they became aware of the limit to which articles were going to be viewable through the app, knew they couldn’t include a search option, which would only make the time-sensitive structure all the more obvious. You could search “Google” and only have one article come up. Sadly, this doesn’t excuse the problem. This means that in order to find an article you want to read, you need to know which category (Politics, Arts, etc.) it was published in.

The Fix: Apple offers inspiration for a simple solution to this problem: Spotlight, the six-year-old Mac OS X feature which easily indexes your computer. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the technology be bought/sourced wholly from Apple, because a personal computer and the archives of the premiere newspaper in the country are far from similar. What I’m saying is that the Times can take their search engine from their web site, and place it into their apps in a way that is visually similar to Spotlight: a magnifying glass in the upper right-hand corner.

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Fail #3 The Times apps as they exist now are very bare-bones. When previously writing about the paper’s new paywall as their opportunity to do big things with their features set, I said that they needed something beyond their existing offerings to make audiences excited and interested. The “Donations” link on websites and suggestions at museums only work on a select kind of person. The failure of these launch apps to go beyond existing content might have been because of the time-sensitive nature of some internal, self imposed deadline.

Adding a favorite in Instacast, in two simple steps.

The Fix: For the apps to thrive, which means that subscriptions must continue, it is in the best interest of the Times to make their apps take more inspiration from the App Store ecosystem. The op-ed columnists are one of the Times’ best weapons to acquire page views and respect, so the paper should start with bringing you closer to these writers. Instacast is an app that helps you download and listen to your favorite podcasts while on the go, which is a void in the current offerings Apple’s own iTunes Store/iPod apps have left open. I bring it up because it does the Add A Favorite feature quite well, with a Favorites Menu that has already listed the more popular podcasts, and the ease of use to add them to your personal list means you’re spending the least amount of time navigating menus and fiddling with options. With a favorites system involving the Times op-ed staff, and the rest of their writers as well, the app could also pull in their work outside of the paper. Both Charles M. Blow and Nate Silver are quite good with tweeting—no dick pics yet!—and the Times would be smart to see what they could do so that Twitter-unfriendly readers could still access the other works of their favorite scribes.

Some may have their reading priorities in this order, but damn if I ever will.

 

 

Fail #4 In-app, the sections of the Times are organized by the seriousness of their subject matter. This is good for some, but not all. Not everybody prioritizes Business Day over Sports, so I think the app could stand to have the giant stick taken out of its structure. A digital platform allows for a visualization of the user’s topical preferences, and they need to take advantage of this.

How most apps take care of sorting

The Fix: Most iOS apps with list views (shown here with the iPod app’s On The Go Playlist Functionality) have an edit function which bring up red “–” buttons on the left of each item and an icon consisting of three horizontal bars on the right. For the Times, I could see just using the three bars feature, so that you could sort things to your interests. This is more of an iPhone issue than it is an iPad issue, because the iPhone app is hindered by its smaller scale and the Sections page means a lot of scrolling and learning where everything is in a list where organization seems to be mostly based on the aforementioned seriousness rankings. Additionally, all of their popularity lists need to be integrated into the apps. Currently, you can only see Most E-Mailed, but Most Blogged, Searched, and Popular Movies should all be available; you could use a left-right flipping system to jump between them.

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Despite all of this, I’m sticking with the decision to be a paying subscriber. With some services, you are buying early because you think the developers have a vision of where the next steps of the project are going to be, and as long as they develop their software alongside their editorial staff, paying the Times is a pretty good decision to make.

[1] Not that he isn’t correct, but a writer of his stature must have better targets to take on, right?

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