“Welcome to the future,” reads the web page for the New York Times’ software/web hybrid application, Times Reader. “Your newspaper is here.” Well, I certainly hope not.
The Times Reader, a program which allows you to download virtually the entire contents of the newspaper in seconds online for offline perusal at your leisure, is rather underwhelming. And as you can only use Times Reader if you pay $3.45 a week (or are a paying print subscriber), you’d think that the revenue-starved paper would be working a little harder to improve the product. So why does the Times Reader fail to please? Let me count the ways.
First of all, the program’s basic presentation style is too limiting. One of the great things about a print newspaper is the information conveyed visually from the layout and other graphical cues. More important stories are higher up on the page, with larger headlines and more space for text. Pictures that accompany a story are, super shocker, placed next to the story. Sometimes seeing a picture and reading the headline are all you need to know. Browsing is easy since you can read all the headlines at a glance and, critically, the beginning paragraphs of each story.
Not so in Times Reader. Instead, each section of the paper is typically displayed with just one lead story with a picture and a sentence or two of text below the headline (sometimes two stories get the added text if there’s no picture). All other stories are displayed simply as uniformly-sized headlines. See the picture below (click on any picture in this review for a larger view).
How are you supposed to be able to browse the paper when you can’t even tell what each story is about? And after the first screen’s worth of headlines, subsequent pages in the same section (reached by hitting the down arrow key or scrolling lower) are even more drab, with just lists of headlines all in the same font size and style. The Times own web site, by contrast, does a much better job using layout, different size headlines, pictures and so on:
The Times has added a cool (if hard to notice) browsing mode that’s much better than the default. In the upper left corner of the application is a small button labeled with two tiny, overlapping rectangles called “browse.” If you click it, the interface switches to a horizontally-scrolling list of reduced-size pages of the entire section you’re in, allowing you to peruse all the articles in that section visually. Each mini-page in browse view is the beginning of a separate story, complete with text and pictures. Click on one of these lil’ pages and it smoothly expands to fill your whole reader window. The horizontal scrolling works fine using the arrow keys on my Macbook Pro but not the two-finger drag on my touch pad, sadly.
Second major problem: what’s with the divorce settlement between words and pictures? Initially, I thought that the Times Reader just left out a lot of the pictures that were included in the newspaper (and on the web!). Then I noticed at the bottom of the sections list is something labeled “News in Pictures.” If you check out that section, you get a scrolling list of all the pictures and illustrations from that day’s paper with links back to the related stories. Imagine my surprise to discover that over 100 pictures accompanying stories in the print newspaper were segregated down here without appearing anywhere else in connection with those very stories in the Times Reader’s versions.
My last grip concerns hyperlinks. Words in light blue type are links but I’m never clear where they’re going to take me. Click on “Jorge Posada” and you get to a topic page about the Yankee catcher on the Times own web site. Clicking on the word “Apple” in a story about laptops seems like it is supposed to take you to a page about the company on Marketwatch, I think, but the link doesn’t work for me on the Mac using Firefox or Safari. And I have yet to find a true, honest-to-goodness link that links to original material elsewhere (such as a blog post, original source material, a transcript etc).
p.s. Despite my whining, the interactive crossword puzzle is really, really cool.