The trouble with the future is that it never arrives—or by the time it does, we fail to recognize it as such. The Internet is one such creature of the future that now fails to impress. Had you told me 15 years ago that by 2004 I could retrieve any one of 13 billion pages of free content—newspapers, all the great books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, catalogs, weather reports, political writings, hobby scribblings, diaries, pornography, owners manuals, learned exegeses, trivia, et al.—from an electric typewriter connected to a fancy phone line and a color television, I would have cried, "Amen!" But instead, I find myself sitting at my computer and grumbling because a few "facts" that I know to be true and need for this article can't be substantiated by a Google search or a Nexis prowl. The future has failed me!
This is the way I feel about the electronic versions of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times (also, free PDF), which serve the look and feel of the print editions on the Web. I should be raving about how incredibly cool it is to download the searchable and printable versions of three of my favorite papers onto my ultralight, wi-fied laptop and tote them around the house, into the backyard, and onto the subway. So why are these electronic editions as comfortable as a fat man trapped in an iron suit designed by a boa constrictor?
That these editions induce claustrophobia, even when displayed on a large flat-panel monitor, cannot be denied. For a sense of how poorly the facsimile of a broadsheet newspaper translates onto a computer screen, imagine reading a newspaper through a six-pane colonial window in which five of the panes have been blacked out. I haven't had this sort of tunnel vision while reading since the last time I endured newspaper microfilm at the city library. (I feel the same way, only less so, about the Webified magazines in the Zinio format.)
Oh, there are advantages to the e-editions. Because the layouts use Adobe Acrobat PDF technology, e-edition pages are identical to the newsprint pages, right down to the photographs and typography. This produces a certain comfort factor. You can search text (WaPo, LAT, NYT), mark pages with a yellow highlighter (NYT), e-mail articles and store them (WaPo), search display ads by keyword (WaPo, NYT), schedule automatic downloads (NYT), archive whole issues (WaPo, NYT), read the comics (WaPo), navigate easily from section to section (WaPo, NYT), and print (all). The e-editions make excellent sense for readers who can't purchase hard copies of these newspapers on the day of publication and want the entire newspaper automatically dropped onto their computer, as opposed to copying bits and pieces of the newspapers to their hard drives manually or with an offline browser (CatchTheWeb, Rip Clip, Zylox).
Another argument for the e-edition of the New York Times is that it contains the entire "Metro" section, unlike the national print edition. I can also imagine a scenario in which the e-versions of the Washington Post and New York Times appeal to readers who've been out of the country for a few weeks and want to catch up on these papers upon their return. The e-version of the New York Times is also cheaper than the paper copy at $300 a year rather than $481 for the New York metro-area print version. (The national edition costs $598 a year.) The e-Post costs about $120 a year versus $175 for the print edition.
But enough good news about e-news: For the great masses of newspaper readers, the e-paper is one step backward and two to the side. Plain old printed newspapers are easily explored, share nicely with family members, require no user manual or help file, and never break when you drop them. Nearly 400 years of thinking have gone into newspaper readability. Designers have devised a universal grammar that dictates what typefaces are appropriate for headlines, body copy, and captions; how much white space is needed to balance the layout; how to use photographs; what size of page to use; how to typographically separate ads from news; how to size line length and margins for maximum reader comfort; and so on. These conventions allow the hypothetical reader who has never been exposed to any newspaper except the Detroit Free Press to pick up the Miami Herald or London's Independent or Singapore's Straits Times and plot an efficient course through the news. (See this Slate piece by Bill Hill for a typographical eye-opener.)
E-editions preserve the information-rich typography of print by displaying replicas of the newsprint page. An e-edition reader has a leg up on the reader of the HTML version of the paper because the original typefaces and placement retained in PDF give the e-edition reader clues about the intended rank and "play" of a news story (in the editors' opinion). Web sites suffer on this score because most stories are presented in long lists of plain text. Theoretically, the higher resolution of the PDF pages should improve readability compared to HTML pages. But PDF resolution, even on an excellent monitor, still pales next to a well-printed newspaper page. And the form factor of a 21-inch computer monitor (a paltry 1.3 square feet) is no comparison to the 4 square feet of an average broadsheet newspaper, a surface area that encourages the eye to graze and hunt for interesting stories.
The paid Los Angeles Times e-edition, distributed by Press Display, offers only a rudimentary search function and navigation via PDF thumbnails. The New York Times e-edition interface (Newsstand.com) bears no resemblance to the File*Edit*View*Format*Tools conventions of Internet Explorer, which means a steep learning curve for new users. Even after mastering the overcomplicated New York Times e-edition, I find myself wondering if I'm missing fabulous features hidden under the hood. The Washington Post e-edition (Olive Software) seems more intuitive. It's also more flexible. For example, one view of the Washington Post e-edition allows users to cut and paste from stories, but the New York Times disables clipping and pasting in the name of "digital rights management." Talk about an invitation to cancel your e-edition account and return to nytimes.com to read the newspaper!
Even a dunce can see the strategy behind the paid e-editions. Except for the Wall Street Journal, newspapers have been giving their copy away on the Web for 10 years. Now, with print circulation in free fall, publishers have got to serve ads and collect revenue from somewhere. Because no publisher wants to be the first to cold-turkey their free-loading Web audience, newspapers are experimenting with putting some copy behind a subscriber wall (the "Calendar" section at the Los Angeles Times) and requiring readers to register. Only the Journal has done a good job of making readers pay, perhaps because they deduct the expense from their income taxes. According toEditor & Publisher, the Journal counts 295,162 individual paid online subscriptions. * Meanwhile, more people attend home games of the Class A Delmarva Shorebirds (3,460) than subscribe to the New York Times e-editions (daily, 3,331; Sunday, 2,780).
To be fair, we should judge the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times e-editions as interim media—or Version 1 software—that's destined to be improved or replaced. Electronic books were supposed to change the face of publishing, remember? Firefly Network was going to add a revolutionary level of personalization to Web content. "Push" was going to make you "kiss your [Web] browser goodbye." None of these innovations succeeded, but that doesn't mean the experiments weren't worthwhile.
That's my attitude toward e-editions. If they're to evolve beyond their experimental niche, publishers need to re-imagine newspaper layout for computer screens rather than forcing the broadsheet form onto it. In England, newspaper publishers are aggressively re-imagining layout, although not for the Web. The Independent and the Times, both broadsheets, have spun off tabloid versions to serve commuters who desire a more compact paper.
A successful e-edition designer should ape them. As long as publishers expect e-readers to pay top dollar, they should deliver something the e-reader can't get in print or on the vanilla Web. Start with something that's as legible as a PDF but that fits a monitor's outlines. Don't go crazy with multimedia (though when used intelligently, audio and video can help some stories). Adopt more natural navigation. Publishers shouldn't be frightened of cannibalizing the current print readership—they need to get there before the competition does. Adjust the business model to take full advantage of readers' computers. For instance, why not throw in some free search of the paid archives with the e-subscription? (Joey Anuff of Suck once harrumphed that only newspapers would have the gall to charge you more for an archived film review than it costs to rent the title in question.)
In the early days of television, announcers looked into a camera and essentially read the news wires into it. Reading the e-editions, I get the funny sense that history is repeating itself. Perhaps newspaper guys are holding e-editions back by slavishly forcing these new media into the newspaper mold. Fire them.
"People don't actually read newspapers—they get into them every morning like a hot bath," Marshall McLuhan once said. If McLuhan were around today, I reckon he'd find e-editions tepid. It's time to raise the temperature, even at the risk of scalding a few publishers.
People don't actually read Web sites—they step into them every morning like a steaming shower. Or something like that. Send aphorisms, tarot readings, and epic verse to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
Correction, May 6, 2004:The original version of this article quoted erroneous information about the price of an online Wall Street Journal subscription from a May 3 article in Editor & Publisher. Editor & Publisher has since deleted that erroneous information from its article, as has Slate. (Return to the corrected sentence.)