Where to read the future
Newspapers may be struggling to survive in the digital present but one of the most venerable could have a website scoop on its hands, David Bowen says.
|The New York Times Reader||The New York Times|
I have just seen the future of the corporate website. It comes from an unlikely source, the traditional newspaper, and it solves big issues that dog websites now.
The New York Times TimesReader is a new way of reading the venerable US broadsheet. It does not run on the web, but on Adobe Air software. You download this, and it launches a window that shapes itself to fill your screen. The New York Times itself is on subscription, but there’s enough free content to get a good idea of how the reader works.
I have had the TimesReader up on one screen, and the New York Times (NYT) website up on the other. Why is the Reader version so much easier to use?
The best of times…
Primarily because it does not scroll. The page fills the screen, and that’s it. You move around either from a left-hand menu, which is always in place, or by going through articles page by page. Pages load much more quickly than on a website – presumably the ‘Air’ reflects the software’s lightness.
As a result, editors have to treat the page in a different way. They do not have the luxury of infinitely expandable space and, by definition, have to keep everything ‘above the fold’ (newspaper jargon, but on a website meaning content that can be seen immediately, without scrolling).
So, they get rid of all the rubbish at the top. On my 19-inch screen, the NYT website does not get going until almost four inches (10cm) from the top of the site – the Reader version has a simple bar, perhaps three quarters of an inch deep. Admittedly it has a banner ad at the bottom, but this takes up just an inch.
The NYT fits as many headlines as it can on the index pages. The front page has four short stories, with another six headlines to the right. There’s a similar mix on the section index pages.
And the pages are arranged neatly – despite the links, they look much cleaner than the web version.
The combined effect is that the Reader version is much easier to browse than the website – almost as easy, indeed, as a paper made out of, um, paper.
… the worst of times
Despite the comforting familiarity of the expression ’browsing the web’, websites are not easy to browse. I get the Financial Times delivered onto my doormat every morning. I also have a subscription to ft.com, but I will not give up on the paper because I feel it keeps me in much better touch with the world. I sit, my eyes skim across the page, and I pick up a great variety of stories. Many of them I would not have thought to look at – but there they are, well-crafted headlines drawing me to them, and suddenly I know about something I had no clue about before.
On the paper’s website, by contrast, I have to scroll my way through disordered pages. It’s too busy to browse (this word to me implies a certain leisure), so I use it instead to seek out pieces I want – usually with the search engine. It is brilliant for this, of course, but I rarely read anything unconnected to what I intended.
Paths less often chosen
The truth is that the internet is making specialists of us all, hacking back the serendipity that feeds us as we browse a newspaper. We look things up on Google, we find what we want, we may then click a ‘related link’, but we never go too far from the path we have chosen. We subscribe to e-mail or RSS feeds, we read blogs, again we keep to our specialisms. Maybe we look up articles on Wikipedia – but this has the same weakness. When I call up ‘Matterhorn’, I find out only about mountains. Not, as I do with my hard-back Britannica, also about Herbert Matter (advertising pioneer) and Pellegrino Matteucci (explorer).
Five Reader lessons
What does this mean for managers of websites? That they have to switch to Adobe Air, and learn the skills that that requires? Not yet, at least.
But they could think about the other lessons from the lightweight NYT.
First, what about doing everything they can to keep content above the fold? With fast broadband connections, many people can skip from page to page at speed. I know some web designers hate this idea and point to studies proving that people are happy to scroll. They may be, but I bet they would absorb much more if they didn’t have to.
Second, remove clutter from the top of the page. Most corporate sites waste an inordinate amount of space with banners, bars, images and other sorts of things. Go minimalist – get rid of all but the basic navigation bar and a logo.
Third, go for order. Try to keep each page as uncluttered as possible. Much easier to browse.
Fourth, fit as many headlines as you can onto section landing pages – but keep the content pages headline-free.
Finally. Related links are well enough, but what about unrelated links? Link to pages that have little or nothing to do directly with the content on the page; or to a really good site that you think your visitors would like; or to a blog; or to a Twitter feed. Why? Because you are showing your visitors that you want them to expand their horizons or look ‘outside the box’. That is something they lack online, and they will thank you for it.
I haven’t even mentioned e-readers, the topic of the moment. The same principles apply to them – but they will have to wait for another column.
First published on 13 January, 2010