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April 2, 2014, 7:58 a.m.

NYT Now, out today, mixes lots of good mobile-centric ideas with moments of caution

The new product from The New York Times is the most interesting app produced by a traditional American news outlet in years. But can it differentiate itself from the Times’ main app — and find a paying audience?

If you’ve got an iPhone or an iPod touch, NYT Now is out now and a free download. The new app from The New York Times promises to offer a subset of the Times’ content to a mobile-focused audience that gets its news on the go and wants a lower price point. It’s the most interesting mobile app from a traditional news company in years.

Ken Doctor ran through the business implications of NYT Now for us last week, but now that I’ve gotten a chance to play around with it, I wanted to throw in my two cents on the ideas behind it — the design, the user experience, and the ways in which it strays from (and remains tied to) the Times’ other digital properties. Nota bene: This is Day One, of course — anything here could change or look different in the light of further use.

The story selection looks very similar to

If you were hoping for a radically different presentation of individual Times stories in this mobile-optimized context, you’re not getting it. And if you were hoping that NYT Now would rethink the idea of a digital front page — pulling together different bundles of Times content for a different target audience — that doesn’t look to be in the cards, either.

At this writing, the top eight Times stories in NYT Now are the same top eight stories on the desktop version of The headlines are identical or very nearly identical to the ones appearing on the web. (Headline in NYT Now: “Obama Claims Victory in Push for Health Insurance.” Headline on the story page on “Obama Claims Victory in Push for Insurance.”) NYT Now stories do seem to use different lead art in a healthy number of cases, often elevating a photo that appears lower in the story on desktop to top billing in the app. But it’s pretty darned similar.

(Update: I should note that I don’t cover here NYT Now’s morning and evening briefings, which are rollup summaries of top headlines and intel. You can see an example here. I really like the idea — scratches the same itch as the thousand morning roundup emails started by news orgs in the past year or two — but for some reason, I couldn’t get the briefings to show up in my app. Still haven’t seen one in the wild. But they are a significant differentiator from the web Times.)

There’s a layer of mobile optimization for Times stories.

But it’s a pretty thin layer. The main difference in how those stories are presented is in the bullet points broken out underneath each headline. They’re more self-contained than the brief story summaries on For example, for this story (“Abbas Takes Defiant Step, and Mideast Talks Falter”), the summary text is:

An effort by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to join 15 international agencies threatened to derail the Mideast peace talks as a planned visit by Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday was canceled.

In NYT Now:

  • President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority signs papers to join 15 international agencies.
  • Secretary of State John Kerry responds by canceling a trip to the region.

Or on this story (“To Protect Foreigners, Afghanistan Shuts Down Their Hangouts”):

After a wave of violence in the Afghan capital, several restaurants and guesthouses popular with foreigners were ordered closed until after elections on Saturday.

In NYT Now:

  • The government orders more than a dozen restaurants and guesthouses closed until after elections Saturday.
  • Foreigners have been victims of a wave of violence in the capital.

Minor changes, oriented around chunking up the content. Sentences are shorter, more declarative, and bulleted from scannability. I like it, but it only goes so far.

The taglines attached to stories seem to have a little more voice than you might expect from the Times. This Charles Keating obit, for instance, earns a “BANKING SCOUNDREL” tag, which is rather on-the-nose. And smaller stories sometimes get a different treatment in the stream, with a nice simple sentence rather than a formal newspaper headline.

In general, as one might expect or fear from a mobile experience (depends on your perspective!), the story presentation in NYT Now is more stripped down than on the web. This story on a laptop has four photos, a five-minute embedded video, and a link to an interactive. In NYT Now, it just has one photo. Even the mobile web version of the story comes with all those bells and whistles. (Also, no comments on NYT Now— you can’t read ’em and you can’t write ’em.)

But the biggest consistency is that stories appear in fundamentally unchanged form across all these platforms. This very fine Middle East story is the same 29 paragraphs and 1,437 words whether you’re at your desk or scrolling through NYT Now. That’s about 40 inches, if you still think in newsprint, and it’s pretty long for a phone. I hope in the coming months we’ll see experimentation in summarizing, bulleting, or just plain shortening Times stories in the app — offering the full article if desired, but also giving something that lies between a headline/summary and the full experience.

I also expect the breaking news/updating experience will evolve with time. This story is listed in the app as an update of this one, which is good — but there’s no way for me to know what exactly has been changed without rereading the whole thing and trying to suss out what seems new and what seems familiar. (This is admittedly an edge case, but granular in-story updates are the raison d’être for Circa.)

The aggregation/curation is well done.

The second tab of the app, one swipe or tap away, is Our Picks, where NYT Now editors pick the best of the web. They do it well! NYT Now is willing to link out even when there’s a competing Times story on the same subject; for instance, it links to Greg Kot’s Chicago Tribune obit for Frankie Knuckles rather than the Times’ own. Among the sites linked at this writing: Wired, National Geographic, Yahoo Tech, The Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, Time, and Esquire. There’s even one Our Picks link to an old New York Times story. (Aggregator, curate thyself.)

In all, it’s a nice mix of newsy and feature-y, and the link text is freeform. It feels a bit like a news nerd’s Tumblr, and it’s an interesting contrast to the more straight-arrow collection of the Times’ own content. I hope that NYT Now editors bring a little bit more of that Our Picks DNA one tab over to the Times stories and let their presentation (and content mix) loosen up a bit.

Three miscellaneous thoughts

NYT Now makes stories seem shorter than they actually are. I have no idea whether this is a bug or a deviously clever feature, but when you load a Times story, initially only a portion of the top of the story is fully loaded into the viewport. That makes the scrollbar nice and long, which makes it seem like there’s only another screenful or so of story to read. It’s only as you scroll further than the rest of the story is added to the viewport and that scrollbar shrinks down to the appropriate size. If it’s intentional, it’s a very subtle way of saying Don’t worry, this story isn’t that long. (Update: As I suspected/feared, this appears to be the result of a bug in iOS 7, not a design choice. Still, it’s kind of interesting to think of design cues to make longer pieces feel more inviting and manageable. I think there’s a real sense in which ambitious, snowfallish designs for longform alert the reader the exact opposite: Watch out, this will take a while.)

Saved articles get a lot of real estate. One of the app’s three tabs is reserved for Times articles saved by the user. (Only Times articles, not Our Picks.) I was surprised to see it get that much prominence; it’s not a feature I’ve ever felt like using. Of course, the Times has far more data on user behavior than “Josh isn’t that into it,” so it would appear they’re expecting a quick-skim experience to pair well with a save-for-later experience: a quick scroll on the morning commute, say, and saving longer pieces for the evening or weekend. That makes sense, even if for me that instinct was long ago given over to Instapaper and Twitter favs. (It’s also important because NYT Now has no search function and stories disappear from it all the time.)

It’s not always clear what’s been updated. I don’t just mean within a story — also within the mix of stories. Our Picks is in reverse chronological order, freshest stuff at the top, so it’s easy to see what’s new. But the Times stories are positioned in an editorially derived order, laid out like a front page with only one dimension, up and down. That means sometimes new stories are added to the mix several screens down into the stream. You see a blue dot that indicates “New Stuff!,” but once you go to find out what’s new, you have to scroll and look around for a bit to find out the new story’s down in the sixth position in the stream. It’s awkward.

Can it attract a new paying audience?

There’s an awful lot to like about NYT Now. There are a number of elements that the core Times iPhone app would benefit from stealing: embracing the long scroll; giving more visual oomph to tempt readers to each story; experimenting (however meekly) in summarization for mobile; bringing in aggregation with a bit of voice.

NYT Now makes the core app’s completist ethos feel a bit like, say, the completism of a Phish fan who needs every bootleg of every show: admirable, in a way, but also a bit nutty. Just as the MP3 let us sell our CDs and Spotify let us stop managing our iTunes catalogs, mobile devices have traded “all the news” for “the right news at the right time.”

Much of the evolution of the Times’ apps over the past few years has been toward content parity — to ensure that every bit of content the Times produces was accessible in the native apps. (It’s easy to forget the iPad app once contained only an “Editor’s Choice” selection of articles.) That evolution was important from an infrastructural point of view and in elevating online content culturally within the organization. But it also meant the core apps ended up feeling a little overstuffed.

The Times produces hundreds of pieces of content in a typical day — articles, blog posts, slideshows, videos, interactives. Putting the right ones in front of the right users is going to be a key part of the way forward. The audience that has bookmarked in its desktop web browser is quite different from the ones that it’s trying to attract with NYT Now; it’s disappointing that the content mix appears to be nearly identical. I’ve said before that I think the Times’ recommendation engine should be a big part of that; it’s disappointing that there’s no sign of personalization in NYT Now. (Imagine a recommendations engine that could tell the NYT Now reader specific desirable stories she’s missing out on by not upgrading to the full digital subscription.)

Even though I’m a full digital subscriber, I expect I’ll be using the NYT Now app more than the core iPhone app. The presentation is better, the aggregation adds real value, and the surface-level content is almost identical. It’s also an escape from Apple’s Newsstand ghetto. (But I also expect I’ll still read 20× more Times stories each week via Twitter.)

As much as I like individual elements of NYT Now, I’m not anticipating big subscriber numbers. A digital subscription to the Times runs $15 every four weeks; NYT Now costs $8. I have to think the population of people for whom $15 is too pricey but $8 is just right is pretty small. Getting people to pay for digital content is hard, but the big challenge is getting someone from $0 to $0.01 — the act of commitment to payment. I don’t expect NYT Now to be able to do that for hundreds of thousands of users. (Happy to be wrong! The Times has far better behavioral data than I do about what their users want or choose.)

But even if NYT Now isn’t the success the Times’ original paywall was, it should prove a valuable lesson in building for a mobile audience — which is, increasingly, just the audience. Here’s hoping that the DNA of NYT Now can spread back into the core apps and that it can push harder at bringing an experimental edge to sharing great Times content with the world.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     April 2, 2014, 7:58 a.m.
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