July 26, 2010, 8:15 AM — Last week I told you about the NY Times coming to the iPad via Barnes & Noble's e-reader app. I started a trial subscription and promised to report back, so here we go. As I write this it's Sunday evening and I've seen 6 digital issues of the Times. I figured the Sunday issue would be the 'acid test' of how well the service worked.
First, one quick correction. I said that the daily paper would be automatically downloaded to your iPad. It isn't; you have to tap a Download link, but the download itself is very fast, at least over WiFi.
In hindsight, that turns out to be a good thing because over the past week I realized that I just don't have time in my life to read a newspaper every day. Well, more truthfully, I choose not to make time in my life to read a paper every day; it's just a habit I've gotten out of over the years of getting my news online. I'd just as soon not have issues of the paper automatically downloaded if I'm not going to read them, and it was nice that while catching up over the weekend I could download issues I'd missed and then easily delete them when I was through (contrast that to Wired's iPad app where I still haven't figured out how to delete old issues).
So, is the digital edition of the Sunday NY Times as good an experience as having that thick hunk of dead tree sitting on the coffee table? Short answer: No. What makes the Sunday paper stand out is the special sections: the Magazine, Book Review, Styles and Real Estate sections, among others. These are sections that, in the print edition, have a lot more design than the bulk of the paper. Sadly in the digital edition, they don't look any different from the rest of the paper. Each article is a headline, maybe one non-expandable image, and then the text.
These articles have the same headlines as in the print edition, which can lead to problems when they aren't accompanied by graphics or call-outs that clue you in. For instance one piece in the Magazine section has a headline of Border Rap and it is an interview with the former president of Mexico. But nowhere does it tell you what this gentleman's name is. The article starts with the first question with no set up of who is being interviewed and why. Presumably that info was in a dek in the print edition (the dek is that blurb of text that sometimes prefaces an article; generally it's in bold or italic text) but the dek didn't get printed. This interview has also been "Condensed and Edited" so I'm not sure how they left out the bio material. What the Times should do is offer an alternate head for the digital edition, i.e. Border Rap: An Interview With Vicente Fox.
Another article, again in the Magazine section, is titled Cooking With Dexter: Wiggle Room and in the body of the article are a couple of recipes. For some reason these recipes are also delivered as stand-alone articles, and they come several stories ahead of the story that contains them. So as you 'flip through' the section you suddenly come across this random recipe with no context for why it's there.
Honestly this problem with headlines isn't limited to the special sections. In the National news is this headline: For 2 New U.S. Champions, Diverging Paths Ahead. Any guesses what it's about? Chess. If you're flipping through the full articles and see the image attached to this piece (a couple of chess problems) you'll get the needed context, but the basic problem is newspaper headlines aren't really crafted to stand alone since most people don't access stories via a table of contents. They access them via flipping through the pages of the paper.
The Sports and Style sections really suffer from the text only treatment; it really just isn't the same as flipping through the print edition with it's big images and splashes of color.
This is only the first week of the Times being delivered to the iPad; we can hope the production quality will get better. I'd like to see more and bigger images, generally more design for the special sections, plus some judicious re-writing of headlines. The website (and Android app) have video, too. Why not bring that into the iPad and offer something you can't get in the dead tree edition? I'm not sure how likely these enhancements are, given that this edition was designed for both the Nook and the iPad; to truly shine we need a specific edition for the iPad and other upcoming full-color tablets, whether it comes via Barnes & Noble or directly from the NY Times itself. Until such an edition arrives, the print edition of the Sunday Times has nothing to fear.