New York Times for iPad: Legitimate heir to the Newspaper?

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Articles appear much as they do in a physical paper; articles' layouts present columnized text copy accompanied by graphics and advertisements.
NYTimes 2.0 for iPad
From paper to pixels: The Times and other media have yet to find an economically sustainable replacement for their paper-based products.

The Internet has shaken up the status quo for many incumbent economic leaders – and newspapers have seen this effect more so than any other industry. Since the Web hit the American household in the 1990s, print media has been experimenting with strategies for digital distribution and revenue streams, with few conclusive results after well over a decade. The Web has moved the audience’s attention from monolithic news outlets controlled by publishers in favor of social links (Facebook and Twitter) and aggregators (The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and Drudge Report.)

This year’s announcement of the iPad seemed to change the publishing industry’s outlook on doing business over the Web. Instead of the hyperlinked, non-linear, short-attention-span, copy/paste-friendly nature of a desktop Web browser, the iPad offers a publishing platform similar to their paper product – with an iPad app, the publisher has verticalized control of available content, its layout, navigation experience, and – most importantly – revenue generation methods.

On October 15, the Times released “NYTimes for iPad,” (iTunes Link) labeling it “free until early 2011.” In testing it, I’ve decided it’s an excellent application in its own right, and could potentially be a great sign for the future of print journalism, but it could be yet another business fumble if the company doesn’t execute the proper balance between advertising, consumer pricing and usability.

Article view in the app
Articles appear much as they do in a physical newspaper: article layouts feature columnized text accompanied by graphics and advertisements.

The reading experience on NYTimes 2.0 is the best I’ve ever seen on any screen. The app fully takes advantage of the iPad’s form factor, removing all but the most critical interface elements from the reading experience. The app revolves around two basic views: Article headlines and for a given newspaper section, and the individual article view. It results in a very natural flow for short or extended reading. (I was perfectly comfortable reading the 8,300-word cover article from this week’s New York Times Magazine, which by the way is a thorough political analysis of the Obama Administration’s first two years.) The app remembers where a reader left off (at least on my multitasking-enabled iPad running iOS 4.2, scheduled for release in November) and provides access to the entire paper. Typefaces are elegant and crisp. Additional features include push notifications for breaking news headlines, basic small/large text size selection (which could have provided more options), and the obligatory social network sharing feature. The only thing I felt lacking was any kind of search functionality.

Interstitial ad presented before the desired article
The worst kind of advertising: pre-roll ads. I won't tolerate these in any app, much less a paid one.

In terms of what I can access for free from now through “early 2011,” it’s great. But the Times has also included a wide range of advertisements peppered throughout the app, which are mostly unobtrusive, with one exception: the pre-roll ad. Occasionally, clicking an article link will first force you to a full-screen advertisement, with a very subtle “skip this ad” button below. This is barely acceptable of a free application, and if it makes it into a paid version of the app, I will ditch the entire thing. Also, some of the ads presented on the side of an article view are a little too “sensitive,” sometime misinterpreting my “page turn” swipe as an ad click. The ads themselves, which I believe are using Apple’s new iAd service, are of good quality and don’t slow the app down.

In terms of the app as it exists today, it’s superb. Whether or not it turns out to be a business success, or of continued utility to readers, depends on several factors:

  1. Pricing & advertising balance. The Times must find an effective balance of advertising and consumer pricing that sacrifices neither product quality nor revenue potential.
  2. The vitality of Apple’s new iAd product. iAd exhibits Apple’s tendency to exert a high amount of control over its customers’ products. More than one company has abandoned iAd campaigns due to difficulties working with Apple’s demands. By partnering with Apple, newspapers are tying their financial fate to that of an unproven service, as well as conceding a sizable cut to Apple.
  3. The overall market penetration of the iPad and similar devices supported in the future. With a starting price of $500, the iPad is solidly in the “luxury device” category. They’re selling quite well despite this fact, but a publication of the New York Times’ scale has to see serious adoption before it has a significant effect on their bottom line.

The New York Times is a source of excellent journalism, and have been patiently waiting for old-style reporting to find its way into the digital age. I really hope they don’t screw up the ads and pricing model for this app, because if they get this right, it could mean very good things for the future of the press.