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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 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.)

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  • A young journalist

    Bill Keller is an old man, thus, I don’t really give any weight to his evaluation of exclusively non-print media consumption. Behaviors of his demographic are not those that are going to be shaping the future of media consumption and the industry.

  • Zachary M. Seward

    Rest assured that the Times conducts extensive research, particularly focused on readers under age 35, before making adjustments “that are going to be shaping the future of media consumption and the industry.” I think it’s pretty clear that Keller’s experiment is for his own edification, not market testing. —Zach

  • Spring Chicken

    Keller may be an ‘old man,’ but I have been surprised by the number of 20-somethings I have encountered who share his preference for print. They started reading the ‘paper’ on the web, typically in high school or college, and now find the print easier to navigate. Some read the print but also the web; i am sure there is a story to be done on hybrid readers. I don’t have evidence there is a growing mass of young print fiends out there that is going to save the industry, but it does make me believe people like Keller when they say print will be around for a long time to come.

  • Matt Mireles

    @SpringChicken You’re not a journalism professor by any chance, are you? Because I find j-schools to attract a disproportionate number of those backwards print-lubbers. The wisdom of these dead tree lovers is I think best exemplified by the brilliance of their decision to invest $$$ in an oh-so-relevant j-school education.

  • Matt Mireles

    I also think that this story exemplifies why guys like Keller are the past, not the future of journalism. At best, digital immigrants can clumsily follow the trail blazed by digital natives. They can only grasp to understand the present, much less the future.

    I hope the Times has a fast track that pushes young, digitally savvy managers to the front of the line. But I wouldn’t count on it.

  • another young journalist

    Just had to chime in with a huge “ROFLOL” to the first comment!

  • David Hertz

    This is interesting and insightful. Offers even more hope for the melding of what is best in print and digital platforms. The media aren’t there yet. Neither print nor digital is compelling or lucrative enough to survive without the other. Talk about a symbiotic relationship. Kudos to Keller for sharing his observations. Wish he had done this exercise — and shared it — sooner!

  • ellie50

    Print will never be able to compete with the immediacy of the online time line for news. For that reason alone, print is dead.

    Fresher is better than pretty.

  • HJ

    I tried going Web-only a few months ago when my subscription ran out. I didn’t last a week. I don’t have the time or patience to wait for page hangs when there’s something I need or want to read. Paper is faster, and the race isn’t close. The reason people “prefer” news on the Web is simple: It’s free. There are innumerable ways the Web *could* be superior to print, but they’re barely being explored at this point.

    And Matt, you might take an extended stay in, say, Cuba or China if you want an education on the value of journalism training. Get a clue, child.

  • HJ

    Ellie — No doubt there’s something vital about immediacy, but if your argument were true, television would have wiped out newspapers by the 1940s — or radio before that.

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  • Marci Montgomery

    I adore books in print, but have never really loved the newspaper experience. The paper size is too large — especially on crowded public transit — and the ink tends to smear on hands and clothes. Discarded papers are also a mess across cityscapes and in transit stations. Since I got my iPhone two years ago, I haven’t bought a single daily newspaper. The iPhone is small to hold and can be read no matter how crushed you are in transit; plus you can magnify the type. I personally subscribe to a ton of blogs and news compilations that show up in my email before I head to the office. So even when there’s no connectivity, I can still read the news summaries. If I had the leisure to sit in an uncrowded Paris cafe all morning enjoying coffee and a newspaper, then I would probably be happy with print. But for the daily rush, news needs to be digital!

  • yjenn

    The permanency of print is something I’d rather not lose, and readability-wise, words on paper will always win over brightly-lit screens prone to battery outages. Newspapers are also eminently portable – there’s something organic about being able to grab a newspaper in the waiting room and read about local happenings, and perhaps bring that news home on paper and make clippings/markings. There’s some time to contemplate the news yourself, rather than immediately clicking to throw your thoughts out into a void. I enjoy both print and online media in different ways, and feel both are essential, but there needs to be a balance with the transitory, information-overload feel of browsing multiple news sites on your own.

  • Henchan

    Good start, but it’s the wrong experiment. To truly simulate digital usage patterns don’t follow the brand online, follow the information where it goes. Sometimes back to the Times, usually not. Use good analytics to lay out some of the major flows and follow those.

  • Spring Chicken

    @Mireles. No, I am a Spring Chicken. That means I could not possibly be a j-school prof. I didn’t mean to sound like the grand defender of print. I am just saying, you know, journalist-like, that there may be more to the story, that it is just possible the doomsayers and ‘digital saavy’ may not have it completely right.

  • Matt Mireles

    @HJ I’m not saying there’s no place for journalism training. My comment referred specifically to schools of journalism, especially the kind you go in debt to pay for. They are, I believe, a poor investment. A free virtual university would probably serve the public much, much better.

    Moreover, I don’t think China or Cuba’s problem is a lack of trained journalists so much as it is the systematic way in which their respective governments suppress information and imprison journalists.

    @Chicken Fair enough. But here’s my main beef with the Kellers of the world: the fact that they focus on dead-trees means that they are not focusing on nor do can they have a vision of the future. And the NYT desperately needs someone at the helm with one eyeball fixated on the future.

  • nolongershocked

    So much triumphal arrogance of the young here, all amounting to “Keller is old. That is stupid.” I wish this were something other than a cliche, but it’s (so to speak) age-old. The surprising thing is the way so many people commenting feel like they have all of new media wired. We’re in the very early days here, folks. Before it’s over, intelligence, taste, and experience may matter too. At least Keller, unlike many of you, is testing his assumptions and trying new things.

  • Jeremy White


    The fact that you can not watch the news whenever it was convenient and skip to the exact story you want means that television is not as immediately accessible as a newspaper.

    The web inherits both television’s delivery speed and the convenience of newspapers.

  • Tim

    “Curling up with a paper” is perhaps the most revealing phrase in Keller’s writeup.

    Whenever an older-generation newsperson talks about new electronic delivery systems, a little nugget like this one gets tucked in somewhere. Because these debates over change are really only about comfort — and the older generation can’t imagine how others could be comfortable in the digital-only world.

    I grew up with the internet, and I too like curling up with a paper and reading print on a page.

    But I’d manage fine if there were no more paper.

  • Jason Shen

    My favorite way to read news now is first thing in the morning. Right after my iPhone wakes me up, I can scan my Stanford Daily app for the news. I can do this while still under the covers, as soon as the articles published to the website. You can curl up much more easily with a small device than you can with broadsheet newsprint.

  • Steven M.

    I spend a lot of time on the New York Times’ website, but I also spend $850 annually to buy the print edition so as to financially support the institution. Plus the print edition is eminently more readable. I wish those in the executive suite at the New York Times better understood their news consumers, business model, and road map to the future. But I fear they don’t.

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  • Lien

    I think it is just about the publisher trying to figure out trying to use their product on the new devices.

    Their are those that remember when TV was first invented. Nobody knew how to use it until someone came up with a commercial.

    Apart from the devices giving readers more opportunity to have the time to read the paper, working on the issue of ads that don’t work would be more important to me.

    If Britney Spears cant’t sell Coca-Cola and Michael Jackson couldn’t sell Pepsi, I am surprised there is not any coverage about Madison Avenue going out of business.

  • Lien

    They could think about how to patent the concept behind Twitter, being about what’s happening now, and adapt journalism to it.

  • Freestyler

    Well, I guess that’s it! We’re already having probs with delivery of NYT — still love Sunday in print, on paper, all that touchy-feely stuff –but Keller’s assessment seems like online it shall go.

    I also love the NYT online — far superior to many other print pubs’ versions. But there are a few newspapers and magazines I’d still like to get “for real.” I promise to recycle.

  • josh

    i’m kind of surprised mr. keller is just now getting around to doing this. this should’ve been a high priority a few years ago.

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  • Melissa

    @A young Journalist & @Matt Mireles
    I think you’ve missed the point of this article completely. Of course there are a lot of people who prefer the web; but the idea is to see how someone who prefers print deals with the web. I think it’s a forward-looking approach for someone like Keller to try going web-only. It allows him to see the strengths and weaknesses in the digital platform, not just for those currently using it, but for those who may be interested in transitioning. He can use the things he uncovers to help develop the online medium into a more intuitive one for those who are traditionally print readers.

    @HJ – I think that the Times is one of the few papers that truly is using the web to advantage. I love that when I read a story on their website, I can click through to more stories about that topic and learn the whole background for the situation through stories they’ve done, especially on major issues.

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