Why the newspaper still beats the Amazon Kindle.

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June 18 2009 5:17 PM

The Newspaper Isn't Dead Yet

Why newsprint still beats the Kindle.

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A few years ago, after receiving one too many shocking credit card bills, I canceled my daily subscription to the New York Times. It wasn't an easy decision; though I write for the Web and read almost all of my news online, I've always loved newsprint. My infatuation wasn't a product of mere nostalgia or habit: As I've written before, there's no better way to get a full picture of what's happened around the world than by reading a newspaper. The paper is portable, easy to find, easy to use, and, best of all, skimmable—it lets you glance at several stories at once and read as much or as little as you'd like without getting lost in the weeds.

But newspapers are expensive (it costs $770 a year for daily delivery of the Times) and slow. My phone offers newer news than what's in this morning's paper, and for free, too! Nowadays I regard newspapers as a luxury; I read them in airplanes and hotels, when I've got time and spotty Internet access and I'm feeling flush enough to spend a buck or two for yesterday's news. Still, there's much I miss about the paper—which is why I had high hopes for the Kindle DX, Amazon's new large-screen electronic reader.

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Amazon says the device is ideal for reading newspapers. When the company unveiled the DX last month, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the Times, called it "an important milestone in the convergence between print and digital." Sulzberger is right, I guess: After using it for a week, I can say the new Kindle is a good first attempt at melding what's great about papers with what's great about digital devices. The trouble is, it's not nearly good enough.

You can think of the DX as the Hummer of Kindles. The standard Kindle has a 6-inch screen, weighs less than a pound, holds 1,500 books, and sells for $359. The DX has a 9.7-inch screen, weighs a bit more than a pound, holds 3,500 books, and sells for $489. The DX, unlike the standard version, also has a built-in PDF reader, and it can be used either in portrait or landscape mode—the text shifts when you rotate it, just like on an iPhone. In every other respect, the big Kindle is the same as the small one: It has the same great E Ink display and the same instant wireless access to Amazon's huge online store. And it's just as addictive—you find yourself unable to put it down, buying and reading more books than you ever have before.

The DX also has a few obvious advantages over print newspapers. It's cheaper than the national dailies—subscriptions go for between $6 and $15 a month, depending on the paper. You can buy a new DX and get a year's subscription to the NYT's Kindle editionfor about $650, less than you'd pay for delivery of the paper. (The NYT, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post have all said they plan to offer subsidies for new Kindles to customers who live in areas where the papers don't deliver, but details, so far, are sketchy.) The DX is also more portable than the newspaper, giving you the ability to carry several dailies at a time and to read on a train without elbowing your fellow commuters in the face. Plus, you can take the Kindle along with you on vacation, it never gets drenched in the rain, and your neighbors can't steal it in the morning.

But both versions of the Kindle are missing what makes print newspapers such a perfect delivery vehicle for news: graphic design. The Kindle presents news as a list—you're given a list of sections (international, national, etc.) and, in each section, a list of headlines and a one-sentence capsule of each story. It's your job to guess, from the list, which pieces to read. This turns out to be a terrible way to navigate the news.

Every newspaper you've ever read was put together by someone with an opinion about which of the day's stories was most important. Newspapers convey these opinions through universal, easy-to-understand design conventions—they put important stories on front pages, with the most important ones going higher on the page and getting more space and bigger headlines. You can pick up any page of the paper and—just by reading headlines, subheads, and photo captions—quickly get the gist of several news items. Even when you do choose to read a story, you don't have to read the whole thing. Since it takes no time to switch from one story to another, you can read just a few paragraphs and then go on to something else.

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