As someone old enough to remember life before the web, I still associate The New York Times with a big honking broadsheet, something you hunker down with for a few hours on a Sunday. Compared to easy reads like Newsday or The New York Post, The Times was daunting. During the few times I subscribed to daily delivery, I would feel a creeping sense of guilt as the old copies amassed in my recycling bin, mostly unread.
Since The Times equals “high-quality, in-depth content” in my mind, there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance regarding its latest move into mobile media. The phone isn’t designed for longreads. In this medium, snackable content is the rule. Adapting the Gray Lady to this emerging media landscape has been tricky.
Yet she has no choice: In February, there were about 42 million visitors to nytimes.com according to comScore. Denise Warren, executive vice president of digital products and services, says that something like 30% to 40% of readers come from mobile (mostly phones) on an average day, but on big news days, the number approaches 60%. It’s not clear how much traffic comes from Flipboard, which has distributed Times content since 2012.
The Times is attempting to meet this trend head on with NYT Now, a new app it released Wednesday on iOS. (Sorry, no Android version yet.) The premise: The best of The Times and some curated content from other sources (including rival The Wall Street Journal) presented in snackable bites. If you’re in the market for a 3-minute read to bring you up to speed on the news of the day, this may be just what you’re looking for. However, if you were imagining an app that catered the news to your particular interests, you may find NYT Now wanting.
Similarly, if you’re already a Times subscriber, this isn’t necessarily for you. Warren says the target for this app are people who want more than the allocated free 10-articles-per-month limit on digital, but aren’t ready to spend $15 every four weeks for full digital access. At $7.99 for every 28 days, NYT Now is meant to woo these casual readers.
(If you’re already a subscriber, NYT Now is free. Meanwhile, if you want to go deeper, The Times on Wednesday also introduced Times Premier, which gives you additional content like behind-the-scenes interviews with reporters, “premier crosswords” and ebooks for an extra $10 every four weeks. One of this month’s titles: The Life and Times of Philip Seymour Hoffman.)
Warren says The Times has done its research and knows that those $8-a-month readers are out there, but I’m not convinced. There are so many news reader apps on the market already with free content, including Flipboard, Facebook’s Paper and Google Play Newsstand that it’s hard to believe that there’s a user whose news needs aren’t being met. And if you like Times content that much, why not pay $15 or just keep switching browsers? (Warren says that surprisingly few people exercise this option to get around the 10 articles per month limit.)
Like other news apps designed for mobile phones, NYT Now doesn’t look anything like a newspaper. There’s no front page. Instead there’s a not-quite-endless scroll. Atop the scroll is the latest big news story. At 11:30 AM on Wednesday, that was “Supreme Court Rejects Cap on Donors’ Total Gifts in U.S. Races.” If wanted the quick version, there were two paragraphs. For a deeper dive, you could tap on the headline to see the full story.
Other big stories Wednesday morning included the Mideast peace talks, a piece on people who bought insurance in the last few months but weren’t included in the Affordable Care Act’s official tally and another article about police grappling with a rising number of mentally ill citizens. In total, there were 15 stories in the scroll including two opinion pieces. In addition, there were two videos and one ad, from Cartier.
The ads are something new for The Times, “Paid Posts,” a.k.a. native advertising. A Times rep says the ad should appear once in the news stream at any given time.
That Cartier ad will also run after every 10 stories in “Our Picks,” a second scroll that curates content from elsewhere. On Wednesday, I saw articles from The Detroit News, Philadelphia Magazine and YouTube (a viral video featuring Samuel L. Jackson’s slam poem about Boy Meets World.)
Of the two feeds, Our Picks featured much more varied content and was updated more often. It’s your dessert after wading through the more sober news feed.
There are some other neat features. If you see a story that interests you but don’t have time to read it, you can save it to read later. Clifford Levy, the editor of NYT Now, says there will also be several special updates throughout the day. At 6 am, you can see the morning update. Then there’s a lunchtime read from noon to 2 and then a nighttime read from 9 pm to midnight.
Levy says those times will adjust to your phone’s clock. So if you fly to Los Angeles, for instance, the morning update will come at 6 am PST. However, that just applies to U.S. travel. If you’re in, say, China, you’re not going to see the lunchtime read at noon local time.
When asked why a consumer would use NYT Now vs. any of the other free apps out there, Levy said the human touch was the key. “This is an app that’s curated by humans,” he says. “It’s not done by an algorithm that’s shoveling you stuff.” Those humans — about 15 in all — will be working around the clock to find appropriate content for the app. Though there’s a smaller staff at night, someone will always be on duty, Levy says.
The other selling point is Times content, Levy says. “At the heart of this app is great New York Times journalism,” he says.
There’s no doubt that The New York Times remains one of the most trusted news brands in the world. However, when it comes to stories like the Supreme Court ruling referenced above, you don’t necessarily need The Times‘ version to get the gist.
Digital media has had a flattening effect on brands like The Times. At this point, it’s safe to say most readers care more about the story they’re reading than the source. Luckily, The Times has a lot of great content at its disposal. For me, though, there’s not much utility to NYT Now unless I can customize the news feed. I have an insatiable appetite for tech and business news, for instance, and if I knew NYT Now would reliably deliver such info to my phone, then I’d be an enthusiastic supporter.
However, in my experience, if there’s huge breaking news outside of business and tech, it usually finds me.
That said, I’ll be watching NYT Now. Levy said that in tests, consumers tended to just read news on their mobile phones in the mornings. In the afternoon, they’d drift off to games and social media. However, The Times found that NYT Now users tended to habitually tune into the curated feed late in the day.
If that’s the case, NYT Now may eventually evolve into a sort of gateway drug for casual news fans. If they start consuming more news, they might start appreciating The Times more and pony up for a full subscription. For the rest of us who are already sold on The Times though, NYT Now is likely to remain a curiosity.