From a Casual News Observer
Journalism and news have had a rough decade. Everyone has seemingly struggled under the transition to the web (even though it's been more than a decade since news has moved into the digital era). Traditional newspaper institutions have gone in one direction or another, typically involving either a paywall method of siphoning off free article visits after a limitation (like Financial Times and the New York Times) or a free method backed exclusively by advertising (like USA Today). Other niche news sites backed by paid subscriptions have attempted to rise out of the darkness (like NSFWCorp), but have been beaten down by low member numbers or acquisitions (like NSFWCorp's buyout from PandoDaily). News companies' great battle for relevance with loyal readership, subscribers, and attention squares them off against the violent waves of SEO, blogs, social media, and "free news elsewhere."
So what strategy will work now? How can these institutions survive in the modern era?
The New York Times, which has experimented in a number of ways with its subscription services across traditional paper delivery and digital accessibility, have recently released a new product called NYT Now that might be the best solution yet. At first, I wasn't sold on their pitch:
NYT Now includes the top stories from The New York Times, handpicked and summarized by our editors.
The product is basically a selection of the top NYT articles (and continuing stories) of the day, along with another section handled by their editors that "curates a feed of the most talked-about stories from other sources, so you’ll never miss out on what’s interesting." And that's exactly what it is. The kicker is that they're charging $8/month for this, and it primarily exists as an iPhone app. As a bit of a bonus, if you're an NYT Now subscriber and log in to the nytimes.com website, it will feature small green diamonds next to articles that you may read for free (otherwise you're stuck with the same limitations of non-subscribers -- 10 articles/month).
When you read that summary, it sounds like a bizarre product. Yet another curation app of articles around the Internet? Another news app with the focus of summarizing important news of the day? And yet another subscription offering from the New York Times that's even more puzzling and confusing than their current crop of options (weird pairings like Tablet + Website only)? If I already was at a loss of understanding their convoluted digital vs. traditional strategy, this seemed to be horribly ill-advised direction to take.
But I was wrong. NYT Now is actually fantastic.
Okay, So Why is it Fantastic?
Keeping up with the news has always been a laborious exercise if you're a casual observer. I've subscribed and unsubscribed to a number of different news-oriented periodicals over the last decade -- The Economist, The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Wallstreet Journal, and Monocle -- hoping that one would stick as my go-to for world and potlical news (typically the stuff I don't follow in my highly customed RSS feedreading or Twitter stream). I also have used and tried a number of apps that attempt to bring you the top news from across the world and Web, including Circa (still the best example of this) and the Quartz morning briefing. While I enjoy the journalistic integrity, detailed stories, and birds-eye view that so many of these purvey, nothing has really stuck with me as part of a daily or weekly exercise in reading (except Monocle's brilliant monthly designs). But there's still an appeal to receive and understand news, even though it's hard to keep up with.
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So why does another potentially divisive app do it better than anything else out there? The Atlantic's assessment of NYT Now sums it up best:
Keeping up with the news is exhausting. NYT Now proposes that the best way to stay on top of the flood isn't a wily and undulating Facebook or Twitter feed. It's a single, holistic, ongoing news package, that tells readers what they want to know and nothing more—unless they specifically want to dive deeper.
There's also a bit of friendly personalization involved. When you wake up for your morning briefing, the NYT Now app greets with you a "Good Morning", the temperature outside, and an easy bulleted list of the things to recap from yesterday and watch out for today. Again around 6pm your local time, there is a "Good Evening" briefing to cap off the day. It's like getting a presidential briefing doc from your secretary. It feels awesome. And nothing beats professionally-written bullet points and headlines to guide you through the mess of a constantly updating news site's home page. The experience with NYT Now feels better than anything before it.
You may be wondering about the limitations in articles for free viewing on nytimes.com. Yes, it's true, you don't get to access every article they publish. Originally, I thought this would be an issue -- sucks I'm paying for a partial subscription to the entire NYT package. Well, after a good week of NYT Now use, I can tell you it isn't an issue at all. Who has time for all these articles anyway? When I was subscribed to the NYT, I feel like I only read some of the top stories anyway, and then entertained myself with Film, Travel, and Science articles when one sounded worth reading. Same gist here -- while it's hard to navigate to sections of the newspaper in-app (note: you can't), it's easy to find the top stories in these sections on nytimes.com. And more than likely, the top couple stories from that section are available for NYT Now subscribers. So instead of wading through a whole section for the probable best article, you'll just get easy, visible access to it. And if you really want to read that off-beat "36 hours in Tokyo" article, you can use one of your free 10 article credits per month.
As a convenience, if you scroll upon an article you'd like to delve into later, you can send it to a Saved section (one of the three main streaming views in the app). This area operates as a sort of Instapaper for reading saved articles at your preferred time. It syncs with your NYT account (which you must create or log into with your NYT Now app subscription), so anything you save for later reading on nytimes.com also shows up here. If you want, you can also send articles to your favorite read later app (like Instapaper or Pocket) via the iOS share panel -- these services can be reached via a forwarded email of the article, and from my tests, it seems to work just fine.
Since downloading the app on launch day, I've habitually noticed I've been tapping it open more than Twitter and Circa these days to see the latest headlines and follow their curated stream of hand-picked articles around the web. Sure, I'm likely doing this because it's still a new experience, but I'm also enjoying it because their stream often includes bits from everyone -- especially outside my highly biased, highly curated RSS feeds. You need a break from the same kind of stories, and NYT Now has been (and promises to continue to be) an easily accessible vacation.
You can download the NYT Now app here and try it for free for a month. Subscriptions are handled via iTunes, so you aren't handing over private information to the NYT and you can easily cancel without having to call a 1800 number (like you traditionally do for a regular subscription.