NY Times Digital Reader Debuts — But Will PC Users Pay for It?

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By: David Hirschman

The New York Times has unveiled the public version of its new Times Reader program, which is designed to give users a digital reading experience that is more like the print version of the paper than NYTimes.com. Robert Larson, vice president for product development, said The New York Times Co. is also in the planning stages to create similar digital programs for its International Herald Tribune and the Boston Globe.

Responding to those who have charged that $15-a-month is a lot when you can get most of the material on the paper’s free Web site, Larson responded that the Reader is “a significant discount compared to print. … For those who want free, we have a great Web site for you, but this format is for people wanting more of a print experience.”

Incorporating many personalizing functions, the program lets readers download the most recent version of the online newspaper (with the latest NYTimes.com stories automatically downloaded every 30 minutes to the user’s screen and then stored in an archive for seven days). A reader can then take a laptop or mobile device anywhere and read the most recent news assembled in formatting not unlike that of a print newspaper.

Articles can be saved to the user’s hard drive, or annotated and highlighted with a simple tool. It also has a search function and menu tabs that let readers easily navigate through and find stories in certain sections or on specific topics. As well, the program is designed to reformat and reconfigure its pages and text to fit screens ranging from ultra-mobile devices to billboards.

“Part of the beauty of this, as a publisher, is that we can design it once and it will look great on any screen size,” said Larson. He added that this type of reformatting also meant readers wouldn’t have to scroll through stories (but rather could navigate through them using arrow keys).

Similar digital-paper-to-go services have been launched in the past from companies like Zinio and Newsstand, but in PDF form, which required a lot of scrolling. Larson said what separates the Times Reader from those services are its continuous updates as well as the readability of the formatting.

“What we’re trying to accomplish with Times Reader is create a really delightful, natural reading experience on a screen,” he said. “NYTimes.com is a fantastic Web site … but it’s many many different things at once. It’s a huge news database; it’s very deep in vertical categories; it’s a place you can go and graze, and just pick up one thing. You could choose to read the entire paper if you wanted to, but it’s a little bit of work. This packages everything the way a newspaper packages everything. It’s contained and extremely easy to navigate.”

Larson noted that the number of pages the average reader went through on the Reader was far more than they look at, on average, on the Web site. “The time spent is very very high,” he said.

The service, which includes TimesSelect content and Premium Crosswords, is provided to print subscribers of the paper at no charge — including 7-day, weekend, and Sunday-only subscribers. Alone, the service costs $165 per year, or $14.95 per month. New subscribers will get a 30-day free trial period. The paper is also looking into a micro-payment solution, where readers would be able to pay for the service by the day, said Larson.

There has been some discussion about whether the service is too expensive (when most of the same content is avilable free on the Web site). In Washington Square News last week, writer Matt Buchanan wrote that “While $15 a month is a bargain compared to home delivery at $40 a month, when the same content is available for free on its website, the inclination to dole out cash drops precipitously.”

While the program supports photos, it doesn’t currently download multimedia elements from NYTimes.com. Larson said that incorporating the site’s video features into the program was planned for the near future. There are also certain sections of the paper (like movie listings) that do not download.

The Reader, which was designed in conjunction with Microsoft, is currently only available to users with devices that run Windows XP or Windows Vista. Larson noted that 15% of the paper’s online readers use Macintosh systems, and that the paper was already working on a Mac-compatible version which he hoped would launch later this year. He said that because the Times Reader is being given as a benefit to subscribers, creating a Mac version was a very high priority for his team.

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