All the News That's Fit for the Web: N.Y. Times Online

By: Steve Outing

Build it and they will come.

That could have been the business model for the New York Times' new Web service, The New York Times On The Web, which was opened to the public today. The Times' single server (an IBM RISC 6000 running the Netscape Publishing Server on a T-3 line) is getting hammered today, and Times' executives sound a bit surprised at just how popular their service has become "overnight."

"So much for a 'soft launch,'" says New York Times technology VP Steve Luciani. "We're getting murdered."

The Times opened the site without a lot of fanfare. A Peter Lewis story about the site ran on page C-7 of this morning's paper. No other publicity was released about the site in advance; New York Times Electronic Media Company managers would only agree to speak with me this morning, after launch. Nevertheless, hordes of Web users were hitting the Times server in numbers so great that it was difficult to get through.

The Times site requires registration, and by late morning about 500 people per hour were signing up. Registrations were taking up a lot of the server's processor cycles, so signing up was troublesome. It took me 3 tries to successfully get a log-on and password. Luciani says the site itself had received about 100,000 hits by 10:30 a.m. this morning; he expected to get about 100,000 hits for the entire first day.

Luciani says the Times has planned all along to run the site on multiple servers, "but we never thought we'd have to do it on day one." (The Times' lone, overworked server resides at an IBM division facility in Schaumberg, Illinois -- the same site where the and servers operate.)

Test-driving the site

Times on the Web is a very well done site, once you are able to get into it. It does not contain the full content of the New York Times print edition, but has most of it -- plus some original content created only for the Web site. And while news is the primary draw of the site, it contains other components that earn the title of "interactive," such as moderated discussion forums, plus the expected searchable databases, entertainment review archives, etc.

Editorial director Kevin McKenna walked me through the site this morning. Here's a brief overview of what this site is about:

* Content: If you're looking for the newspaper to be reproduced online, you've pretty much got it. Nearly all Times stories can be found on the site, minus most of the straight wire service copy that runs in the paper. The Web edition also omits some of the very local New York coverage. While Times execs say the site is not meant to draw readers away from the print edition, it would serve as a suitable replacement. (As a heavy online user who cannot get home delivery of the Times, I expect the Web edition to be my sole Times "purchase." Access to the site is free for now, but probably will become a subscription service in a few months, free to print edition subscribers but charged to non-subscribers in the U.S. and around the world.)

* News updates: The site will be updated several times daily, says McKenna, but exactly how often is still to be worked out. You will not get a preview of the printed Times the night before, however; "We are not going to scoop the paper," he says. Breaking stories will be covered in advance of the print edition in a "Late News" roundup section, but this will be in the form of an edited compilation of Times reporting rather than a duplication of the printed article. Times Web edition editors will draw on the resources of the Times' news-gathering operation to write these updates but won't steal from the paper in advance. In this sense, the site is viewed as a supplement to the paper for print subscribers, offering breaking news from the Times without waiting for the paper carrier to bring the next edition.

McKenna says they chose not to mimmick other sites and offer a rolling wire service feed, choosing instead to present updates from the Times' news-gathering organization.

* Low-graphics option: Like any good Web site, users can opt to navigate the site via text-only pages.

* Quick Read: This section is similar to the newspaper's Page 2 news summary, with headlines and short summaries of the top stories of the day. Click on the headline to get to the main story.

* Scanned front page: "Just for fun," says McKenna, the Times decided to present a scanned GIF image of the day's printed front page as a downloadable file. The body type is not meant to be readable, but you can see the photos and read the headlines. A lot of newspaper online services offer this, though I wonder why. Already this morning I got a call from someone who wanted to know if his Web browser was malfunctioning because he couldn't read the Times' GIF front page.

* Sections: Following the newspaper metaphor, the site is split up into several key sections -- Front Page; Editorial/Op Ed; Politics; and Cybertimes -- with other sections taking the standard approach of presenting a list of headlines linked to news stories.

* Cybertimes: This area -- as you would expect, featuring coverage of cyberspace, computer, technology and online news -- will include a significant amount of original content. Times on the Web has hired several freelance writers to produce one or two stories a day that will not appear in print. This is also where you'll find technology stories from the print edition.

* Politics: The Politics section brings together all of the Times' political coverage in one place, a feat not possible typically in the printed paper because of the constraints of web (as in paper web, not WWW) configurations. McKenna expects this to be a popular area, which will compete with the upcoming Washington Post-ABC TV-Newsweek magazine political Web site called ElectionLine. An example of how the online service can supplement and extend the printed paper will be in how the Times Web site handles the New York Times-CBS Poll, he says.

* Arts & Leisure: The online component of the Sunday section includes full content of the print section reproduced online, supplemented with audio clips, links to other resources, searchable entertainment listings and reviews, and a digital entertainment calendar.

* Travel and Real Estate: While Arts & Entertainment takes print content and ports it online, these sections serve rather to help people plan a trip or buy/rent a house. The sections would allow you to search for articles about a city you're planning to visit, or learn about a neighborhood before buying a house.

* Crossword: The New York Times Crossword is so important to so many people, McKenna says, that there was no question about putting it on the Web. Users download a Web browser helper application (from Lyriq) and then each day download the day's puzzle, which can be played on screen while off-line (or simply printed out).

* Searchability: The entire site is searchable, and the classified section features some sophisticated search features.

* Discussion forums: The Times is taking the interactive aspect of the online world seriously, by launching discussion forums and paying for professional hosts to run them. McKenna says he hopes to raise the level of discussion that's found online. "What's online in many places is a pretty low level of dialog," he says. The Times is starting with 4 highlighted discussion areas: 1) Press and politics, moderated by Marvin Kalb; 2) computers and society, moderated by James Gleick; 3) a crossword discussion forum, hosted by crossword experts Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon; and 4) a foreign policy forum moderated by Richard Haass. There are also several general-interest forums.

The forums have no timetable and will run their course. New forums will be added over time, and users have the capability to launch their own discussion topics. McKenna says the Times hopes to learn from the experience, and keep growing and changing the forums to see what works. The forum moderators -- the inaugural hosts are not Times staffers -- are paid an honorarium for participating.

Just the beginning

As New York Times New Media Company president Martin Nisenholtz told me this morning, this is not a finished product; it's just the first shot. The Times On The Web is off to a great start, because it encompasses what an online newspaper service should offer its users: a full-fledged news product augmented by interactive technologies, plus a true interactive component. I give the Times an early high grade for remembering that the online medium is as much about facilitating dialog between individuals as it is about delivering news to a worldwide audience.

This is an important Web site, and I want to spend more time talking about it. In tomorrow's column I'll talk to Nisenholtz about the business model behind The New York Times on the Web.

Best Online Newspaper Services Competition

Please don't forget to nominate your own company or another for Editor & Publisher/The Kelsey Group's 1996 Best Online Newspaper Services Competition. The nomination form is on the Web at Deadline for nominations is January 24, 1996. Winners will be announced at the Interactive Newspapers conference in San Francisco on February 24, 1996.

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