Eyes-on with the NY Times' "Today's Paper" web app

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Source: Today's Paper

Many years ago, one of my favorite routines was spending Sunday mornings with a pot of coffee, a few breakfast pastries and the Sunday New York Times. We'd lounge the morning away, passing sections back and forth and catching up on what had been going on in the world.

I can no longer bring myself to subscribe to a print newspaper but I still miss that experience from time to time. Somehow hitting nytimes.com just doesn't feel the same as having a paper to work my way through.

Anyway yesterday The Verge ran an article about the NY Times' new Today's Paper web app. Quoting The Verge's piece:

The web app seems designed for readers who appreciate the benefits offered by digital but miss the experience of reading a definitive daily edition. By limiting itself to content that's selected to go into the paper each day, Today's Paper should appeal to those who feel a bit overwhelmed by the full breadth of The New York Times' reporting. And for purists of the print edition, the app brings the Times' true sections, like the once-weekly "Sunday Styles" and "Science Times," to the fore (the paper's website and traditional apps are split into many generic sections).

That sounded perfect for me, so off I went...only to run straight into a paywall. You can't access Today's Paper without a subscription. As far as I could tell, there was no way to 'test drive' Today's Paper. I figured as long as I was going to have to pay, I'd share the experience with my readers.

The first challenge was figuring out what I needed to subscribe to. It seems like the best deal is to subscribe to the print Sunday Only edition for $4.10/week, since it comes will "All Digital Access" for free. If I decide to keep the sub that's what I'll do, even if the print paper goes right into the recycle bin. Such a waste.

But as a test case I opted to go for a $0.99/week trial subscription to the digital edition, but I still had to make a decision between the "NYTimes.com + smartphone apps" subscription, the "NYTimes.com + tablet apps" subscription and the "All Digital Access" subscription. They're all 99 cents for the first 4 weeks, but after that they're $3.75, $5.00. and $8.75/week, respectively.

I would guess that the cheapest plan would give you access to Today's Paper but I've reached out to the NY Times in order to find out for sure. I'll update this post if/when they respond. For now I opted for the middle tier that includes tablet apps, and that got me into Today's Paper.

The difference between the smartphone plan and the Sunday print edition with digital access is 35 cents a week, but the All Digital Access that comes with the print edition gets you an extra log in for a "family member" and access to The Collection, which is some kind of fashion/style app. If neither of those matter than go with the cheapest plan and save 35 cents.

Whew.

Dear NY Times; It should not take someone 4 paragraphs to describe your subscription offerings. Please simplify this!

It amazes me that they charge more for "tablet apps" than they do for "smartphone apps." Does that sounds weird to anyone else?

Moving on, at long last, to Today's Paper.

In spite of what I saw at The Verge (and the image I've included at the top of this post), Today's Paper doesn't look like a newspaper; that's just an image of the paper that is used as a background when loading the actual content. Here's what the 'front page' looks like in Chrome:

Source: Today's Paper

You've got a list of Front Page stories in the left pane and the first story is displayed on the right. If you scroll down through the first story it transitions right into the next story until you've finished the last story in this section. Then you'll find a link to the next section.

Back in the left pane you'll scroll down past headlines from the Front Page section and then you'll hit thumbnails of subsequent sections. Clicking on any of these moves the thumbnail to the top of the pane and exposes that section's headlines below, and opens the top story in the right pane.

It's certainly functional but it still isn't the same as the experience of leafing through an actual newspaper where your eyes will quickly be drawn to articles of interest, perhaps due to an image or even because of the number of column inches devoted to a piece.

That said, it still is a contained entity and if you browse through each section and read the stories of interest, at the end of it you can confidently cross "Read the newspaper" off your to-do list for the day. Maybe I'm weird but I like crossing things off of lists.

You can also easily catch up on papers you missed. Today's Paper lets you flip back through the previous week's editions. That meant I could go back to last Sunday's paper and open the Travel Section and see how they handle content that relies on more visual appeal.

The layouts are pretty sparse, with a column of text interspersed with moderate sized images. However you can click on these images to look at bigger versions and in at least one case the image led to a slide show:

Source: Today's Paper

It's hard to see in that resized image, but the slides (in this particular slide show at least) maxed out at a hearty 1024x740. In another article I found a 10 minute video short. Actually it was 11 very short films strung together. I wouldn't find that in a paper...paper.

It's not all good news though. Sometimes the translations from print to web goes awry. In last Tuesday's Science Times there was a piece on pet neutering and spaying. There were two paragraphs of the article then a paragraph that was probably a 'call out' in print but somehow got inserted into the main body of the piece and suddenly I was reading about breast cancer and robot security guards.

Source: Today's Paper

How prevalent this problem is, I can't say. It's the only time I saw it happen in my one evening of browsing articles.

So is this a good deal or not? Well that's going to be a very personal decision. For me, at $1/week I'd definitely stay subscribed, even if it was just for Science Times on Tuesday and the Sunday Book Review sections. Once the intro deal expires and I'm looking at a minimum of $15/month I'm not so sure.

The problem is, those languid Sunday mornings with the paper I used to enjoy didn't end for no reason. Life is a lot more hectic today. Back then I didn't have a couple hundred unread posts in my RSS feed every morning, and several social networks to check in on every hour or two. Finding the time to browse through an entire paper today is going to be a real challenge.

I almost wish the NY Times would sell Today's Paper by the issue, at least as an option. I think I'd be much happier dropping $2 or $3 on the Sunday paper every once in a while than I'd be subscribing to a service that I don't have time to make the most of.

But I still love the idea of Today's Paper. Even knowing I'd never have time to put it to good use, I'm drawn to the idea of a contained package of articles to read each day.

How about you? Any interest at all? I know any time content is for sale on the Internet it's a hard sell for most people (and why not, with so much free content available). Does Today's Paper appeal to anyone else out there, or am I just the fringe case once again?

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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