Richard Baum's Profile
What makes a good electronic newspaper?
I’ve been playing with the Amazon Kindle for a little over a week now and while I’m sold on its superiority to printed books it’s no replacement for the newspaper. It’s not so much that the black and white screen renders pictures as murky as a Rorschach inkblot as the fact that there is no easy way to skim through the paper. You can jump between sections via a home page that acts like a very basic website navigation, but there’s no obvious way to navigate within a section. The International link, for example, takes you to the first article in that section. You can see the headline of the next article at the bottom of the page and jump straight to it, but that’s all. There’s no list of all the articles in the section. The only way to skim the headlines is to move forward one article at a time.
This serial navigation is how most of us read print newspapers and has no place as the only option for an electronic edition. But it got me thinking about the ideal features of an electronic newspaper. Obviously you want the freedom to navigate through the content as you wish, but serial navigation has its advantages. One of the pleasures of print is when you turn the page to find a interesting article that you would never have jumped to by choice. The serendipity factor doesn’t feel as high on the traditional newspaper website, despite the plethora of Editor’s Choice modules and Most Read lists.
There’s also a sense of accomplishment in reaching the last page of a print paper and the reassurance that you’ve seen “all the news that’s fit to print.” You’d have to click a few hundred “next article” links to achieve that on a website. So while NYT.com is a far better electronic newspaper than the Kindle version, its lack of an elegant serial navigation path means it’s imperfect.
The paper’s iPhone app is closer to my ideal, although like many people I find it crashes frequently. You can skim a headline list with the flick of a finger and it’s as easy to move forwards within a section as it is to jump between them. It’s readable despite the small screen size and will be a joy on a bigger iPod Touch.
My favorite version of the newspaper, however, is Times Reader, a PC application that it launched in 2006. The landscape screen layout evokes the print edition and you can navigate both randomly via the mouse or serially via the arrow keys or mouse wheel. The article pages have clean three-column layouts with big pictures. Headlines fade to gray when you’ve read an article, so like the print edition you always have a sense of your progress through the paper. It costs the same as the Kindle edition, $15 a month, although it’s free if you’re a print subscriber. Best of all worlds? Possibly.