Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Web design starts to merge with print design at the NYT; will this influence the look of its eventual paid tablet app?

The website of the New York Times has always tried to mirror the unique look of the newspaper. Take a look at The Wayback Machine at old home pages of the Times -- they have archives that date back to 1996 -- and you will see that while the design may have been incredibly thin in width, the web design still says "this is the New York Times".

← The distinctive look of the NYT.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball pointed today at the changes to the Times Opinion Page online, complimenting the website designers for its true to newspaper look. And while I agree that the Times continues to do some of the best work on the web (for a media company) I would disagree that the changes make much sense for the web.

The trend today is for enormous amounts of white space. But I think this is a fad brought on my the many sites out there that cram in text and graphics. The "more newspaper" look of the new Opinion Page is decidedly "un-web" in my view. On the Internet, readers want information fast, and they want to be able to scan the page for the information they want. Unlike a daily newspaper -- or, I'd argue, a tablet publication -- the web is timeless. It is neither "today" or "yesterday", it is always "now". So forcing the eye to the content that is in today's paper seems misdirected.

The online design of the Opinion Page.

It may still be a while until the Times releases its promised paid iPad app -- we'll probably have to wait until the NYT is satisfied with the way paid subscriptions will be handled by Apple. So in the meantime, we have to look to the only Times iPad app currently available, its Editor's Choice app.

Although often criticized for its limited content, the app itself is still a fairly remarkable tablet app. The Times did not want to create a replica edition knowing that readers would want a fresh look on the new device. Created in time to be released by the day the iPad first launched, the app manages to do quite a bit right: it does not jump stories from the front page (home page), it reflows stories into set layouts much like a mobile app, it reserves room for advertising, etc. (The look and feel seems to have been used for both the Financial Times and Telegraph apps.)

A paid version will have to offer much more, however. But will the Times simply reproduce the daily paper for the new paid app? I doubt it, they have shown much more imagination than that.

The Opinion Page from NYT Editor's Choice.

My guess is that the Times will continue to try and duplicate the look of the print edition, but continue to flow articles into native iPad layouts. With an iPad paid subscription, though, not only will the reader want more content, including what can be found on the website, but also access to archives, video, etc.

The time between April 3 of this year, when the Times launched its initial iPad app, and the end of the year, when the new app should appear, will be an interesting time for NYT designers. But I'm anxiously awaiting what they come up with.

Update: Wow, I've just now discovered that Joshua Benton from the Nieman Journalism Lab posted something very similar to my post above, complete with screenshots. Worse, based on the time stamp it looks like he beat me to the subject by an hour or more.

It is normally my practice that if I see a piece like Benton's I won't write my own piece unless I am in complete disagreement with the early posst -- or if the post takes the lazy way out and doesn't include screenshots.

Coincidentally, the NYT Co. forecasted its Q3 financial results and the picture remains bleak, with print revenue still declining, even while digital revenue continues to grow. The result is that the company expects to report a loss equivalent to 5 to 7 cents a share. As of 2:30 ET, NYT share prices are down a little over 6 percent.

I noticed today RR Donnelley has released another iPad app for one of its print customers, Hanley Wood's Remodeling magazine. The app, Remodeling Magazine Reader, is appropriately named -- this is not so much an iPad app as it is a way to read the magazine on your iPad.
RR Donnelley also produces flipbooks for Remodeling, or at least they used to. A look at the magazine's website that the last flipbook posted online was from January, and the magazine is not promoting their flipbooks on the home page, which many publishers do.

If the publisher has decided to stop posting flipbooks online and instead invest that money in an iPad app then I definitely applaud the move. The flipbook, being read online, probably does not attract new readers -- and besides, all research I've seen points to web readers demanding access to information quickly, and then skimming that information equally quick, that is not the same model as print.

But tablets are a different thing all together, and while I would prefer a more native reading experience than a replica edition, at least the magazine title will be offering their content in a new medium.