The Times thinks outside the browser to create a readable online newspaper.

Media criticism.
Sept. 19 2006 6:41 PM

The Times Thinks Outside the Browser

Finally, a readable online newspaper.

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TheReader's search function is as speedy as all hell because, once again, all the stories are stored locally. The search results produce a box for every story, with bigger boxes assigned to stories considered more relevant to your search terms. This visual clue makes grazing search results easier. Overall Reader navigation is remarkably simple and, dare I say, intuitive. The beta doesn't have very many ads in it, so I also expect the Times to get more aggressive about putting pitches in my face. I can live with that.

For a beta release, the Reader runs very nicely. Some sections of the paper, such as the Magazine, classified ads, the regional Sunday section, etc., have yet to migrate to the new platform. The crossword puzzle, tricked out with a few multimedia tweaks, is on the way. At present, the program stores a maximum of a week's worth of Times content at any given moment—jettisoning last Monday's edition when you load this Monday's. I'm sure there's some business reason for limiting storage to the last seven days (plus whatever you've saved to hard disk), but I hope the paper changes it. As a devoted reader, having a year or two of easily searched New York Times on my hard drive would be a real selling point.

Did I say selling point? I did. The major reason I unsubscribed to the print edition of the Times, which costs $621 a year in Washington,and started reading the Web version was because the Web version is free. (The TimesSelect columns and features on the Web cost $49.95 for nonsubscribers.) I've used the Times Reader for only a couple of days, but I've found it superb for keeping track of what I've not yet read and for commute reading. People have stopped me on the subway to ask me what I'm reading. I'd be willing to meet the Sulzberger family halfway and pay $310 a year for a souped-up version that offered much more storage. What's not to like? I suspect that in six months I'll feel slightly embarrassed about having written this mash note—not because my instincts are wrong but because the platform will have evolved in a way that makes this beta look primitive. Until then …

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If you're interested in the history and uses of typography, see this white paper by Microsoft's Bill Hill. Disclosure: I worked for Microsoft between 1996 and 2005, when it owned Slate. They had the deep pockets to which I refer above. The Washington Post Co. became my employer when it bought Slate from Microsoft. The Post Co. has deep pockets, too. It just pretends to be broke. From time to time I write book reviews for the New York Times. Send your disclosures via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.