NY Times online review

Gene Denzel (lezned@YORKU.CA)
Mon, 19 Feb 1996 20:42:19 -0500


Of interest, perhaps:

Headline: All the News That's Fit to Print Out!
It's the New York Times' Full Web Launch
===============================================

>From Dom's Domain: Media Sites and Strategies
Copyright Dominique Paul Noth
January 21, 1996

After months of teasing us with special previews and alliances, the
mother of
all American newspapers blasted onto the Internet in late January with an
immense site and precise goals that may prove the acid test on many fronts
for the future of the newspaper industry in cyberspace.

Now make no mistake. There is only one New York Times
< http://www.nytimes.com/ > . What it decides to do flat won't work for
smaller papers and selective markets. In fact, the Times could be their
worst competitive nightmare, if they haven't already been scared to death
by places like CNN < http://www.cnn.com/ >.

Of course, it sometimes feels like there is more than one New York Times, at
least online. A lot of this Internet content and classified searches are on
America Online in the @times area. It's a partner in CareerPath
< http://careerpath.com >. Both the fax version of the newspaper and some
offerings of the Times syndication services are on the Internet, and were
reviewed in a previous column. Perhaps deliberately, the Internet
presence of the New York Times has been slowly unfolding, and only now
has become a standing target.

And this full web premiere is really something to check out and talk about.
No other US newspaper has quite the brand and reputation for depth of this
product. No paper brings with it quite the same concern for being a standard
bearer of the industry. No paper on the Internet will be watched as
closely over the next year.

Its builders -- and those who have built news sites can appreciate what kind
of technical headaches, internal debates and problem-solving went on --
have carefully weighed the lessons of 1995 and chosen not to wait (or not to
design to fluidly incorporate) many of the possibilities for 1996. They
have made a firm commitment to an omnibus approach, to existing
navigational structures and to the central value of the product's
journalistic reputation. But they have also added intelligent audio
bells and communication whistles for the Internet environment.

If, after the first few months of curiosity, they have not built a large,
regular, committed computer readership, if their strategic decisions do not
show good signs of improving the cyber bottom line while augmenting (as
opposed to negatively affecting) their print product and print relationships,
if advertisers don't respond to their decisions (millions of views
guaranteed for big bucks, and the ads stay till they get the numbers,
hopefully not till the year 2000) and see positive results in research and
results, a lot of newspaper executives at their shop and at other shops
around the country will be going back into the conference rooms, pointing to
the Times experience and start rewheeling and redealing -- patience, alas,
not being a virtue most newspaper companies bring to this marketplace.

A Variety of Approaches

>From the start of its Internet efforts, the Times has clearly been concerned
about retaining the look and aura of its print product, and on the web site
the designers have gone for image maps that echo the print look -- not
just on the entry page, but to handle each major section within the site,
even retaining the masthead feel down to the individual stories.

They do offer a low-speed version, plus you can select news by categories.
The stories featured on their image-map pages often incorporate hypertext
links and headlines to related content (mostly text but also color
photos, maps and sound bites), and even lower down in the category lists
you can see some efforts to add such hypertext connectivity.

They have chosen small jpegs to open to larger pictures, short news sound
bites (in .au format) and a recommended narrow set to your web browser size
so that stories display in familiar single column format. There is a search
engine to look by key words, there is a briefs news lists with
intelligent summations linked to the full articles. There's even a scan of
the print front page, which you can't really read beyond headlines but can
use to see how the stories on the cyber front page were actually played
on the print front page.

Indeed, there is a constant referential sense to the arrangement of the print
product even in areas like CyberTimes, but it is combined with a genuine
sense of care, explanation and convenience for the Net user.

Talking Times

Thus there are very good starts on forums where users can participate (with
promises of key personality participation), threads by topics and even an
area where you can come in and discuss the web site, which visitors are
doing, no holds barred. You can provide your own hypertext links in these
forum threads, and I was amused at how some of the early visitors,
including fellow newspaper colleagues, subtly invited visitors to leave
the Times and click to their own sites! (Hmm, maybe I should go back on
and put in
my own site < http://www.arcfile.com/dom >-- that would be the first
free ad the NY Times ever gave me!).

The Times has done some shrewd work in its help area, so you can see a tree
of where the content is, get advice on the best ways to navigate and read
clear descriptions of their current services and future intentions. Of
course you register (the script-writer here may have given away the
future planning,
since the button says "register," but the page is labeled "subscribe.html")
but there is currently no charge in the US and you will be informed if
they decide there will be one.

There are all the smart moves of service and explanation -- verification
codes, e-mail newsletters you can receive about site features and even, if
you wish, information from their advertisers. And yes, once past the entry
page there is an ad at the top, to the left of all those image maps.

A key ingredient for the Times -- indeed, what looks like the main way they
hope to make money in the near future -- is not yet operational: the archive
search ($1.95 an article) and a clipping service ($9.98 a month, with
discounts for home print subscribers) -- and it is the success of these
enterprise that other large newspapers will be watching most carefully.

As noted, a lot of content has been available elsewhere like America Online
-- and some surprising elsewheres given the various Times alliances. In fact,
I was amazed to find its feature story on art in cyberspace up at the
Discovery Channel < http://www.discovery.com/ > before I saw it on the
Times' own web site!

Still, the web site is deeper in news, feature content and searchability, and
seems fully committed to back-and-forward linking on key stories, infinitely
more so than on the America Online verson.

Solutions to a Puzzle

And to answer the main question (at least it was the main question when the
NY Times launched on aol!), yes, you can get and do the crossword
puzzle. It is in the Lyriq software format (users of Digital Post on AT&T
Interchange know all about this), which you must have on your own machine
(free download and my family uses it regularly). You simply transfer the
Times daily puzzle to you own machine (very fast), and either print it
out or do it in the Lyriq software. The fact that you have such rapid
options (but have to go back online, clever boys, to get the answers) is
welcome, given how slow it still is to do a puzzle online.

Other downloads are possible for the TV Host electronic television listings
and for automated home market evaluations (an outside firm).

What are some of the limitations? Well, the image maps, while simply
done so they load quickly, still take time to contact and pull up, and
speed will be an issue on a site of such immense content. It could be
argued that in the debut mode the Times may have an abnormal number of
visitors to tax its servers, but in reality they had to know that, and
the speed with which people move on their first visits will haunt their
memories whenever they want to go back. On my first several visits,
there was a larger than normal difference between simply getting a
straight text story or getting through a bin search. Even those with
fast connections may want to turn off graphics if they're in a hurry,
though that's not a full answer.

Designed for Future?

Still, I'm a patient guy, and some choices moved very quickly despite
obviously heavy traffic. I did have the feeling at times that, even
discounting server activity, I should have been able to select faster to
what I wanted, and that was because of the brand image issue, the effort
to always make the site look and feel like the familiar print version. In
some areas and in some realities of computer navigation, those decisions were
impeding the intuitiveness with which I could make my choices, despite
all the thoughtful help material they've put there. What an
organizational and design challenge this must have been, and you can't
help but admire how the builders were trying at every level of service to
build in clean options. They will learn from visitors what to add or
subtract.

If you look carefully at how the site is designed, the navigation doesn't
exclude incorporating frames or applets or any of the other applications and
add-ons heading our way over the next few months. But, in terms of
plugging these things meaningfully into the current design, that I'm not
so sure of. I don't think it will be easy -- such applications will at
best change the nature of what a site does, rejuggle key habit
arrangements and require new thinking about the look and organization of
the content. It's my guess that the Times has committed itself to this
current look and approach for quite a while to come and has to be hoping
that 1996 doesn't bring the sort of sea-change of what's hot that site
builders suffered through in 1995.

I also feel the Times advertising strategy has not fully unfolded and that,
prestige aside, it will have to deliver more integrated opportunities as time
goes on. I also suspect that readers will seek even more lists, briefs
and quicker searches.

Does the Times blow the other big guys out of the water from a navigational
or breaking news context? No. I can point to other sites that do a neat job
in this area, even some newer ones such as the Philadelphia Inquirer
< http://www.phillynews.com/ >. I think you could argue that they have
applied the current lessons well but have not built or even tried to
build a breakthrough site.

What I do appreciate is that the New York Times, which is often regarded as
high above us all, has put a lot of effort into inviting active participation
by its Internet visitors. If they live up to that start -- actually do
something with the posts and responses as opposed to letting them sit
there, as some other newspapers have lazily done -- the Internet visitors
will feel a personal connection, which is very important in terms of
repeat visits.

Truth is, the style, variety and prestige of the NY Times content would make
it automatically a major player. Add to that how carefully and impressively
they've done it, and it's clear that this site's impact will be vitally
important to the future plans of other American newspapers.

Competitors Should Start Worrying

They haven't changed the game, but they have put some long-term problems into
focus with this launch. The Internet is changing the balance of
newspaper-to-newspaper relationships. Right now everybody is sweetly
talking partnerships, but underneath executives are starting to
seriously worry about letting the other person into the pool.

For years the Times has sold its print product in many national markets, but
the numbers it generates, and the limitations of its early shipped editions,
haven't made local newspapers hostile to its presence, not in most cases.
For one thing, the local paper knows that the Times is often an add-on
buy for the news hounds. And the New York Times News Service remains, in
fact, an important, prestige addition to many newspapers' global and
feature content, as is the New York Times Syndicate material.

The Internet presence could change that -- especially if user numbers for
national newspaper web sites increase down to geographical regions and levels
(a big if, won't happen tomorrow, but still a real possibility).

On the Internet, the alliances being formed by the Times and newspaper chains
(with one hand on their own wallets to be sure, and the other hand
protecting vital parts) could affect all print relationships and
decisions. Consider just one area: the same content the Times provides at
sizable rates to newspapers around the world is available for free, and
actually faster, on the Internet. Now it is not the early edition but
virtually the entire final, accessible simultaneously in Montana as well
as Manhattan.

And it could stay free. The Times hasn't shared its absolute future strategy
-- it rightly should wait and see -- but it is not inconceivable that its
daily newspaper site remains free (in the US, the paper already will
charge non-US customers, apparently determined by domain) and the
charges will be for special services, like archive searches.

Don't just look at what that could do in the Times' home market. Will it
diminish the value of taking the New York Times Service in a distant print
marketplace? Does that change whether you should put your local paper
on the Internet and what it should contain? And the Times is hardly
alone, what with the Associated Press, Reuters and other national news
services offering full information both on the Internet and through
online services.

Already there are notable newspapers as well as midsize and smaller
newspapers that are just throwing up their hands when looking at the
time and costs of providing national and international news with
intelligent hyperlinks (as opposed to the generic lists that the web
industry calls "shovelware"). Some are, in fact, offering readers links
to national sites on their home pages rather than building it themselves.
Or thinking of buying a service as opposed to editing the ones they get.
Or using all this to confirm their belief that their future is local,
local,local.

Of course, if they link to a site like the Times, they are also opening the
door for their local readers to access a lot of other kind of content,
and a lot of other kinds of alliances, some of it quite local indeed.

Who Will Live and Die?

How many omnibus newspapers does the web have room for? (Not talking about
space, talking about profitability.) Will a site like the New York Times
excite more papers into ambitious web offerings? Or will it cause them to
pull back, to wait and see before they decide how to expand?

There are some newspapers that still think what they do on the Internet and
what they do in their local market are really not closely related, but the
New York Times on the Internet should change that thinking in a hurry --
while also delivering important messages on what the Internet community
really wants and is willing to pay for in its dealings with newspaper
companies.

-- Dominique Paul Noth

Provided through American Resource Company < http://www.arcfile.com/ >.

--

************** PLEASE NOTE AND USE THE NEW EMAIL ADDRESS ***************** lezned@YorkU.CA Prof. Gene Denzel PHONE: 416-736-2100 x20311 Associate Vice-President FAX: 416-736-5444 (Technological Services & Registrar) York University 4700 Keele St North York, Ontario M3J 1P3