An alternative metaphor for reading the news

Times Skimmer. Click on image to see for yourself.

I don’t remember when Times Skimmer was first unveiled by the New York Times, but I do remember being unimpressed. Recently, though, I took another look, and it struck me as new and improved. It’s a different way of experiencing the newspaper, and I think it’s got some real promise.

As with Times Reader, a subscription-only e-reader product, the free (for now) Times Skimmer is laid out in horizontal pages that you can flip through quite efficiently. Skimmer, which compiles the Times’ RSS feeds, is more up-to-date than Reader (though the latter does have a “Latest News” section) and gives you a more-complete snippet of each story, making it unnecessary to page through every story to see what the sometimes-cryptic headlines are all about.

Reader’s advantages over Skimmer are three-fold: (1) you can download the entire paper and take it with you, so you don’t have to be connected to the Internet in order to read it; (2) Reader is typographically more pleasing, as Skimmer simply taps in to NYTimes.com when you click on a story; and (3) with Reader you’ve got that day’s Times as opposed to a collection of RSS feeds — a distinction that matters to some of us elderly news junkies.

So what do you get from Skimmer? A different way of looking at NYTimes.com that rationalizes the overstuffed, jumbled website. I’ve found several stories using Skimmer that I would have missed if I’d been reading the website or Reader. Among them: this excellent feature from the Lens blog on the last photographs taken by Times photographer Joao Silva, gravely injured in Afghanistan.

One annoying omission from Skimmer is the Times’ book news, including the all-important Sunday Book Review. There are RSS feeds both for books in general and the Book Review in particular, so it wouldn’t be hard to add — which makes me think the omission was deliberate. Based on my incomplete reading, it seems that some book news pops up in the arts feed, but only a few highlights. Unfortunately, there’s no way for us mere users to add feeds to Skimmer.

Skimmer and Reader are the inspiration behind the Times’ Chrome app, which became available last week. As with Reader, you can download it and take it with you; as with Skimmer, it’s a compilation of RSS feeds. I’ve played with it a bit, and though it’s promising, it’s not quite ready for prime time.

Reader, Skimmer and the Chrome app, with their simple, horizontal layouts, all seem to have been devised with tablet computers in mind, although Reader won’t run on an iPad and never will unless the Times moves away from its reliance on Adobe Flash. (There’s also a separate Times app for the iPad, which I have not had a chance to test-drive.)

As such, they represent an interesting alternative to the website metaphor we’ve all grown accustomed to over the past 15 years.

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Reflecting on the latest circulation figures

In Japan, advertising accounts for just 35 percent of newspaper revenue. In Britain, it’s 50 percent. And in the United States, ads have traditionally amounted to a whopping 87 percent of newspaper income. That’s why it can truly be said that, in the U.S., newspapers have always given away the news, charging only for paper and delivery.

These days we pay for computers and broadband access while getting the news for free — same as it ever was. That is among the most important explanations for why news organizations are going to have a difficult time persuading more than a handful of readers to pay for online access. I wish them well. But the challenge is enormous.

One thing some readers will continue to pay for is the convenience of print. (Spare me your nostalgia for the romance of print. Print persists for one reason: it’s still more ergonomically friendly than any electronic version. Someday that will change.)

After yesterday’s newspaper circulation figures were released, showing a continued but slowing decline in print sales industry-wide, Boston Globe publisher Chris Mayer issued a memo — a copy of which was obtained by Media Nation — attributing the Globe’s continued slide to last year’s decision to raise the price to as much as the market would bear. (Here is the Boston Herald’s take.)

The idea is that there’s a sweet spot. Up to a point, you can raise prices and make more money, even if the total number of print readers declines. Somewhere, though, there’s a top to the curve, and the challenge is to find the top and not raise prices so much that revenues start to fall. The result, unfortunately, is that you end up with a niche product for an elite readership. But it’s either that or die.

And here’s a good piece of news. There’s also a sizable subset of readers who will pay for electronic editions like Times Reader and GlobeReader, which are cheaper than print but more convenient than newspaper websites that keep you chained to your desk. Given that iPad editions have barely kicked into gear, that’s a promising sign.

The full text of Mayer’s memo follows.

Dear Colleagues,

Earlier today the Audit Bureau of Circulations issued their Fas-Fax report for the six months ending September 30th. The Globe has shown year-over-year declines in line with our expectations, as a result of our circulation and pricing strategy instituted last summer.

The good news is the rate of circulation decline has slowed as we cycle through the impact of the price increases. One indicator is the comparison between September’s report and March’s report. Viewed this way, the declines are 2.8% for Sunday and 4.2% for daily. These are encouraging trends for our business and in line with others in our industry.

The past few months has also seen continued excellence in our reporting and positive contributions to the community. Our Spotlight Team investigation of patronage in the state’s probation department; our sensitive series of stories on bullying; the amazing coverage of the Amy Bishop case; coverage of the earthquake and aftermath in Haiti and its impact in Boston; and our current coverage of the political races are just a few examples of the important journalism we’re delivering.

The Globe’s circulation, now at 368,000 on Sunday and 223,000 daily, still makes us the largest newspaper in New England by a wide margin. The year-over-year decreases of about 15.7% on Sunday and 12.0% daily were expected and budgeted.  To offer some context, we raised prices last summer in most areas by 30% to 50% to grow circulation revenue and stabilize the business.

Of course, circulation numbers are not the end of the story. Print and online media work in concert with one another to build audience. It should be noted then that in terms of readership, during an average week, the Sunday Globe, the daily Globe and Boston.com together will reach 51% of all adults in the metro Boston area.  It will also be reported in Monday’s Fas-Fax that Boston.com’s local audience grew by 2.9 %.

The recently announced two-brand digital strategy is now officially under way and we are developing launch plans for our new subscription-based Web site BostonGlobe.com, and the next generation Boston.com. And, watch forperiodic launches of digital products in the upcoming months.

So, as we look ahead we will continue to execute on our strategy, building on the strong foundation of quality journalism, original content, broad audience reach, higher reader engagement, advertising effectiveness, and strong connection with the community that is reflected by, and results in, our more than 50% of the market.

We can all share a sense of optimism and purpose as we focus on our future success.

— Chris

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday tech talk from a non-techie

Welcome to the tech blog whose author almost knows what he’s talking about. I know just enough to be dangerous, folks. Here are three tidbits for your Tuesday morning.

1. Beyond Google Reader. Last week Laura McGann of the Nieman Media Lab was rhapsodizing to a group of us about the glories of NetNewsWire, an RSS aggregator that resides on your computer rather than in the cloud, as is the case with Google Reader.

I was not entirely unfamiliar with NetNewsWire. I’d played with it before, but preferred a competitor called NewsFire. Several years ago, though, I made the switch to Google Reader and hadn’t looked back.

But lately, like many people, I’d found myself looking at Google Reader less and following interesting links from Twitter more. In part it’s because I really like Twitter. In part, though, it was because Google Reader just wasn’t all that satisfying — it’s slower than using a good client-based news reader and shows you less content before you click.

So a few days ago I reinstalled NetNewsWire and found, to my delight, that it now syncs with Google Reader, which means you don’t really have to decide. It’s fast and free (if you don’t mind looking at advertising; I don’t). If you’ve been losing interest in Google Reader, give NetNewsWire a try.

2. From Chrome to Safari and back again. When Apple unveiled Safari 5 a few months ago, I made the switch from Google Chrome. Though not quite as fast as Chrome (I’ve seen test results that say otherwise, but that’s not my experience), Safari was aesthetically more pleasing. My favorite feature, Reader, isolates the text in a story or blog post and presents it in as a beautifully rendered, easy-to-read page. On a properly designed website, Reader will even find the jump and display that, too.

Then Xmarks went out of business. Xmarks is a browser extension that lets you sync your bookmarks in the cloud and use them across multiple computers. An e-mail from the company outlined the alternatives — free for Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome, but $99 for Safari via Apple’s MobileMe service.

As it turns out, there are at least two free extensions for Chrome — Readability Redux and iReader — that do what Safari’s Reader does, and are more customizable besides. So goodbye Safari.

3. The future of Reader. OK, different Reader — now I’m talking about Times Reader and GlobeReader, the paid electronic editions of the New York Times and the Boston Globe built on Adobe Air.

I’ve been a big fan of Reader since it was unveiled a couple of years ago, but I find that it hasn’t kept up. And with the development folks furiously working on iPad and mobile editions, it doesn’t seem likely that much brain power is going to be devoted to improving them, my wish list aside.

I recently asked Globe publisher Christopher Mayer how many subscribers GlobeReader had attracted. His answer: that’s proprietary. But, anecdotally, I’ve heard that neither Times Reader nor GlobeReader has attracted many paying customers.

Here’s what I like about Reader: it’s fast, it’s highly readable and you don’t need an Internet connection once that day’s edition has been downloaded. What I miss, though, is the richness of the Web — the slideshows, the videos, even the advertising. Lately, more often than not, I find myself using the “Today’s Paper” feature of NYTimes.com, supplemented with Chrome’s iReader extension. (I still tend to use GlobeReader because the “Today’s Globe” section of Boston.com can be so slow.)

Maybe the Reader editions have a future. But my suspicion is that they are just going to fade away for lack of interest.

How to make Reader editions better

No doubt the best coding brains at the New York Times Co. are focused on iPad development these days. But as a paid subscriber to the Reader editions of the New York Times and the Boston Globe, I have a few suggestions for how they could be better. I’d want to see these ideas incorporated into the iPad app as well, so please consider this a two-fer:

1. A front-page image of the print edition should be included, just as it is on the papers’ websites. We Reader readers, to coin a phrase, exist in a sort of electronic halfway house: we still read the paper as the paper, but we don’t mind giving up ink on dead trees. So we, of all customers, want to get a sense of what the front looks like.

2. The Reader organizational scheme should be as clear and easy-to-follow as the simple list format the papers use on their websites for that day’s edition (Globe here; Times here). Yes, I can skim through every Reader story very quickly, but sometimes I’d like to select a section front, then pick and choose.

3. Mega-dittoes for the Globe’s “g” section, which is just a mess in Reader. Way too many short items are just thrown up there. It needs a complete rethink.

4. Folks at the Globe need to take photos more seriously when putting together the Reader edition. There are too many instances of context-free pictures with no captions.

5. Reader editions should always link to multimedia extras such as videos. I know of a few occasions when I’ve found out hours after reading the paper that I missed on a terrific video.

My fear is that the Reader platform hasn’t attracted enough users to make further development worthwhile. I almost never see an ad other than a house ad, for instance. I still think it’s a promising idea, though, and perhaps development can take place in parallel with the iPad.

The Times’ missing corrections

The New York Times today is loaded with corrections, including a dread “Editor’s Note.” None of them appear in Times Reader, the paper’s paid downloadable edition optimized for laptop reading.

This problem goes back months. I’ve posted about it on Twitter, and was told by a Times staffer that she was sure someone was on it. Well, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Times doesn’t take Times Reader all that seriously. Too bad.