Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Seems like old Times

Gloomy advance obituaries are already being written for the print version of the New York Times, with Michael Hirschorn predicting in the Atlantic Monthly ( that the paper may not have enough cash on hand to survive past May of 2009. I love everything about the linear rhythm of a newspaper—its early morning arrival on the stoop, mastering the origami fold needed to read it politely on a crowded subway, scanning it in fits and starts over the course of a day, polishing off the crossword puzzle after dinner—and will feel bereft without these little rituals. Like it or not, now is the moment to get acquainted with other formats for the paper of record. As the Russian proverb states, the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.

The digital Times Reader, a downloadable version of the Times available free to daily subscribers, was created in 2007 as a hybrid of online news and the “real” paper. It gives you the ability to read digital news offline and re-sync the content, updated every 30 minutes, throughout the day; a seven-day archive (think of catching up on a week’s worth of news during a long airplane ride); text searchability; legibility on any size screen. And no ink smudges on your fingers, or loose sports sections sliding all over the floor!

The bloom fades a bit when you consider that only subscribers get Reader for free. (Though it IS less expensive than buying the daily paper: $14.95 per month or $169 per year.) But if you just got the paper on your doorstep this morning, why would you need a digital version? Especially when there’s the Times’ very excellent website available, a more timely way for news hounds to stay current? Saddest of all, Reader only works well for PC users; the beta Mac version requires installing Microsoft’s Silverlight plug-in which doesn’t support either Firefox or Safari.

Nevertheless, Reader is a much better option than the Electronic Edition, an exact digital replica of the printed paper, ads and all. It’s schizophrenic to expect that a digital newspaper would or should look anything like a physical one. You browse information from a site in a very different manner from the way you read a paper, after all. News is the greatest beneficiary of the web’s immediacy and accessibility, and referring its design back to the print format is futile. The whole idea of a digital newspaper as opposed to a news website is a little odd in itself, when you think about it.

I suspect when the time comes, I will rely on the Times website for my news fix. It's free, it's updated constantly, I don't have to sync it or download it. All I have to do is read it, and that's all I want. Except for my 15 sections of newspaper and a croissant with marmalade on Sundays.