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Oct. 20, 2009, 3:53 p.m.

Bill Keller trying to read the Times “mostly in digital forms”

As he absorbs more responsibility for the digital operations of The New York Times, executive editor Bill Keller is trying something that anthropologists would call participant observation: For three weeks, he’s been limiting his exposure to the print edition and consuming the Times in its various digital forms, “trying to better understand the joys and frustrations of our journalism delivered online,” as he put it in a meeting on Thursday.

John Temple, former publisher of the defunct Rocky Mountain News, suggested in July that newspaper editors spend time exclusively reading news on the web, but Keller (and Times managing editor Jill Abramson) are the first I know who have tried it. I emailed Keller to see how the experiment is going, and he obliged with some observations on comprehensiveness, serendipity, and the “balky and drab” experience of reading the Times on a Kindle:

It’s been about three weeks of consuming my NYT (and competition) mostly in digital forms: desktop (the website proper), TimesReader (on a notebook), iPhone and Kindle. In truth, I cheat some on weekends. I love print, and while this experience is making me appreciate more the versatility and creativity of our web staff, nothing has yet made me love print less. A few quick, early-days observations:

Because I’m reading not just as a consumer of news but as the editor of the report, I value a sense of comprehensiveness — not that I’ve read every word, watched every video, perused every photograph — but that I haven’t overlooked anything of note. That may not be a priority for people who aren’t in charge of a newsroom, but for me it is. I find that in all the digital manifestations, because they are demand driven, I miss stuff that I’d have noticed in the print paper.

Of course, online there is more stuff to miss. The abundance is amazing. The videos are intelligent and often ravishing, stand-alone journalism of a high order. Comments give me a rough sense of how stories are playing with our audience, and when they are well moderated they often enrich the experience of a story. I’m especially smitten by the conversation tool we’ve debuted on our health reform page — what out website folks call the bento box — which lets you dive into concentrated discussion on many slices of the health care debate. If you want proof of our boast that our readers are exceptionally smart and engaged, go there.

I’ve found that I’m quite comfortable reading long-form journalism on a screen. Although I read the David Rohde series on his kidnapping twice before publication, I’ve read each installment online with pleasure.

The conventional gripe print-lovers make about online news is the lack of serendipity. But, of course, the website and various apps offer alternative forms of serendipity — the most e-mailed list, recommendations from people in my TimesPeople universe, tweets from fellow readers. All of those alert me to interesting work I might not have gone looking for on my own.

Of the various platforms, I find NYTimes.com on a desktop the most satisfying, but, obviously, the least portable. TimesReader comes closest to the pleasure of a printed paper, but a notebook is not ideal: great for a plane ride, not so great for a subway ride. I like the Kindle fine for books, but for a newspaper it seems a bit balky and drab. Love the iPhone app but, like AP, BBC and all the other news apps that scroll through a list of headlines, it inevitably feels linear. I find myself wondering whether anyone — even the geniuses at Apple — can come up with a single device that combines the advantages and conveniences of these various platforms. Or that makes me quite as happy as curling up with the Sunday paper spread around me.

(I added the links in Keller’s text.)

POSTED     Oct. 20, 2009, 3:53 p.m.
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