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Nov. 5, 2012, 11:34 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

The New York Times is trying to make its mobile apps more than simple containers for news stories

With the Olympics, Hurricane Sandy, and the election, 2012 has given plenty of opportunities for the Times to push live video, interactive graphics, and other webby forms into its smartphone and tablet apps.

Each cycle, live election coverage serves as a premier testbed for online news. Now The New York Times is using it as a test bed for pushing news in apps beyond the rigid templates that have characterized the form. Designers and developers have been working to make the Times’ apps less of a formless container for print and web stories and more of a unique news experience.

“We want them to feel less like a feed of articles and have the same dynamic nature we’ve created with NYTimes.com,” said Fiona Spruill, editor of the Times’ emerging platforms team.

That’s a challenge when operating across the array of platforms the Times supports: iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone, and most recently Windows 8.

Seamlessly integrating things like live video, county-by-county maps, and other interactives into a stream of stories is a challenge most news apps haven’t yet met. Spruill said that the Times is working to better integrate the efforts of a variety of teams — graphics, interactive news, her own emerging platforms — “to build capacity to have live results on six mobile platforms.”

Users of the Times’ apps got a taste of what to expect last week during the ongoing coverage of Hurricane Sandy. Through the app, Times subscribers could get short live updates on damage in the city as well as the status of utilities and transportation. They could also access interactive features, like the hurricane tracker and the live camera on the roof of the Times HQ. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s public briefings on the storm were streamed live not just on NYTimes.com, but also within the apps. On Apple and Android devices, users could submit their hurricane photos directly to the Times.

Spruill said making the app into a more live experience has been a priority for almost a year. (She recently hired Andrew Phelps away from us here at Nieman Lab.) The idea is to have an app that promises the constant stream of news of the website, but not to “recreate the website in the app,” Spruill said. One of the things that makes that possible is its live dashboards, which allow for liveblog-style updates within the app. Readers can tap to jump to specific stories, or scroll through the entire coverage.

Some of these features live in webviews rather than native app code — an acknowledgement that HTML is the most time-effective way to quickly build cross-platform experiences. “For those of us who have been working on the web a long time, the idea of inserting HTML into a native app seemed retro in many ways, but it’s extremely important in our ability to react to news and do these kind of things,” Spruill said.

2012 has been a big year for mobile presentation at the Times, with the election, the Summer Olympics, and Hurricane Sandy providing plenty of opportunities to test new features. The mobile audience is growing, and Spruill said they want to respect the design experience users expect on their smartphones or tablets. If you’re in a news app, you want it to feel contained and app-like. The Times wants to combine that look and feel with the open, constantly-updated nature of the live web. “We want it to look more seamless within the app,” she said. “That requires some tweaking to make it feel like a smooth experience, so app users don’t feel like they’re getting kicked out to NYTimes.com.”

At the moment, the Times is holding down a cross-platform approach when it comes to delivering news on mobile devices. They did kill off their BlackBerry app this summer, but Spruill said they plan to maintain their current suite of apps, even as they experiment with HTML5, like the recently released iPad web app.

“For the foreseeable future, I see us as very much committed to both,” she said. “That takes resources and an investment. I’m glad the Times is putting a huge priority on mobile.”

POSTED     Nov. 5, 2012, 11:34 a.m.
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