Vamshidhar Kommineni

December 30, 2006

The New York Times: The Good, The Bad, and the hope for the future

Filed under: Miscellany — Vamshi @ 12:01 pm

Let me start this off by saying that I’m a little biased because I love the New York Times. It is one of the few remaining bastions of quality unbiased reporting and thoughtful op-ed pieces. I’ve gotten the paper version of the New York Times on the weekends for a couple of years now and read the newspaper on the web for more than 8 years. That said, I have a few opinions on where the newspaper does a good job and where it can improve:

The Good

  • As mentioned earlier, great reporting. It’s a newspaper that’s actually a pleasure to read and not filled with regionally focused human interest drivel. Good coverage of international issues as well
  • Great op-ed pieces. Most of the opinion writers (Frank Rich, Friedman, David Brooks, Paul Krugman, and yes even Maureen Dowd) have something interesting to say.
  • The Week in Review and the NY Times Magazine on Sunday. The former is a nice summary of events of significance, both national and international and the latter has a great selection of articles that I look forward to each weekend.
  • They are trying to make their web front-end better. Some of my problems are with it, but at least they are trying and deserve some credit for it.
  • The Times Reader. If you haven’t tried, it’s an awesome product. Free while it’s in Beta (and I hope it stays that way). Requires the Windows Presentation Foundation (included by default on Vista and can be downloaded for XP). Makes reading the newspaper on a PC much more practical. This is what I use to read the paper from Monday to Friday

The Bad

  • Web frontend to the newspaper, while decent, can be much better. Layout can be improved and articles made more discoverable.
  • The Times Reader can be improved. Let me access "yesterday’s newspaper" to make a more newspaper like experience. I hope this will continue to be improved since it is in Beta and under active development
  • The Alerts system. It may have a limited set of user scenarios, but I think it’s mostly useless for the rest of the population.
  • The notion of requiring a login to read most articles. I’ve been resigned to it for many years, but it turns most people off using the site regularly. Doesn’t work that well in multi-PC scenarios as well (reading the Times from kiosks while traveling for instance)
  • The whole "Times Select" concept is broken. Related to my next point. I’d love to see numbers on how many people have Times Select subscriptions without the dead tree newspaper delivery option and what percentage of the dead tree subscribers actually bother to use the features of Times Select. I suspect both numbers are rather low relative to the investment made by the newspaper on this feature
  • And my biggest gripe: Creating a walled garden of content. Everything in the NYT archive is not accessible unless you pay for it (Times Select customers get to read 100 articles for free each month). Once again I think the alternative (described in the next section) will provide more revenue than the ridiculous notion that casual readers will pay $3.95 per article (last time I checked). The non-discoverability of the rich archive behind this pay-per-article scheme only hurts the New York Times business.

The Hope for the Future

My fundamental thesis is that the New York Times is all about content. Rich reporting and editorial content. And under the current asinine system, probably 98% of that content is hidden behind their paid article walled garden. The revenue loss from opening up this archive will be more than offset by monetization through advertising on the dramatically increased page views. Given that, my suggestions for improvement (if anyone is even listening) would be:

  • Get rid of the login for reading articles. This just reduces the number of visitors to the site and any user data being mined behind the login is probably not being put to that much use anyway.
  • Stop charging for articles and open up the NYT archive to public reading. This will encourage the rest of the Web to link to the New York Times in the secure knowledge that the articles will always be available. Incidentally this will also improve incoming links to the site from Live Search, Google, Yahoo, etc. since the Times will now be an authoritative source of information on search terms.
  • Create a community of users around articles ala Amazon with ratings, favorite articles, user created collections of good articles on a topic, etc. Again this is enabled when you don’t have a walled garden. This user community will be fanatically devoted to the site and will drive more readers to it.
  • Give dead tree and "Select" subscribers meaningful value add-ons like "Save this article" (not unlike me saving a clipping from a newspaper). No walled garden = valuable collections of articles for subscribers that they will cherish and hang on to. Other features might be "Save a copy of this article as PDF", "Email the full text to a friend", etc.
  • Simplify the web site navigation with a well laid out and navigable tree of sections. Use RSS feeds aggressively on the sections to enable people to create their own "Alerts" in a simpler way
  • Continue investing in the Times Reader and alternative newspaper delivery mechanisms (to mobile devices for instance). This is the future of the New York Times (and every other newspaper). They’ve made a great first step, and they need to continue working on things. As I hope they’ve realized, they don’t need to compromise on advertising delivery in the new mediums (the Times Reader has a great way of displaying ads natively in the reader in a way that doesn’t annoy me).
  • Take more risks in the technology space. The BBC is a stellar example of a stodgy, old company that is using the web in creative ways including providing episodes online, value added commentary, etc. PBS does an excellent job as well. Learn from these sites and push the envelope.

The above suggestions have to go hand in hand with continuing to invest in what makes the newspaper great of course, i.e. investment in their reporting staff who produce the quality content. But the Times has plenty of experience here and I doubt that they will screw up in that respect.

I do recognize that the New York Times is a for profit organization. While the above suggestions might look like I’m asking them to give everything away, that’s not the reality of it. I believe that if they make effective use of advertising on the Web and mobile devices, they will make more revenue this way.

<Addressed to my readership of 0 people :)>

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1 Comment »

  1. Well, I certainly read your blog. So your readership is > 0. I agree with most of your remarks, though some of the "bad" things listed above don’t annoy me that much (atleast not yet)

    Comment by El Ferrocarril — January 3, 2007 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

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