The Danger of a Customizable Digital Edition of The New York Times

by astanhaus

Originally submitted on as a term paper for McGill University’s New Media class with Professor Caroline Bem.

Marshall McLuhan proclaimed, “The ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”[1] The Internet has quickened the habits of readers to create skimmers. The classic print journalism of The New York Times is made for the digital skimmer; articles are “front-loaded,” beginning with key information. The New York Times continues to embrace the possibilities of the Internet, and in 2014, will launch a redesigned version of its website, www.nytimes.com, henceforth referred to as the digital edition of The New York Times in this paper. As marketed, the subscriber’s preferences–not the editor’s authority–will determine a subscriber’s digital edition experience. Traditionally, an editor’s authoritative responsibilities include choosing featured stories, crafting headlines, and ensuring articles are “front-loaded.” With its redesigned digital edition, The New York Times is responding to the saturated mass market and utilizing the Internet’s ability of “mass customization,” what Mark Andrejevic describes as the ability to produce mass quantities of items, which can be tailored to niche markets & specific individuals.[2] If The New York Times allows its digital edition to be customized like any other self-curated social media “news feed,” it will sacrifice its editor-directed experience that already serves a niche market, subscribers to The New York Times. The customizable navigation bar expected in the 2014 redesign of the digital edition of The New York Times must be reconsidered; continued use of traditional editorial tactics will incentivise digital subscribers to click on and skim just as many articles as a bygone cover-to-cover newspaper reader would have consumed.

Previously, comprehensively reading The New York Times newspaper was viewed as necessity. The newspaper’s physical presence was a material reminder of the range of knowledge required to be an informed individual. The editors of The New York Times determined the organization of the newspaper. The newspaper was read from start to finish.[1]   Each page presented the reader with titles, subtitles, photos, and articles. This newspaper was able to command and retain its audience by publishing the most innovative, provocative, and interesting stories.[3] Reading the entire newspaper was an indispensable part of many people’s morning routines. The New York Times must digitally command the modern reader’s attention with a website that conveys the indispensable editor-directed experience of the print edition.

The digital edition of The New York Times was launched in 1996, last redesigned in 2006, and a prototype of the 2014 website redesign is now available.[4] As the most-visited newspaper website, its reporting sets America’s national agenda and its online innovation sets trends for web journalism.[5] Compared to the print edition, the distinguishing feature of the digital edition is that subscribers must click on the title of an article to access that article. Because of the crucial click, the goal of the website redesign is optimal user navigation, as seen in a fixed navigation bar with sections “Most Emailed” and “Recommended For You,”  along with traditional sections; this navigation bar stays with users regardless of location on the page.[6] This menu bar creates a more personalized experience for subscribers, as it can be customized actively, by declaring a favorite section, or passively, by the site monitoring the subscriber’s habits.[7] This customizable navigation bar is already available for The New York Times apps; this website redesign reflects the apps’ design and is meant to, in the words of the director of digital design Ian Adelman, “minimize the friction of moving through the site.”[8] In the print edition, the editor-directed experience provided friction, causing a subscriber to discover an article and potentially change his or her opinion. With this website redesign optimized for user navigation, The New York Times is adapting to new characteristics of its digital self-directed skimmer, at the expense of preserving the indispensable editor-directed experience.

The New York Times knows its digital audience and is marketing the website redesign accordingly. The prototype’s marketing describes how a digital subscriber is able to “Browse & Explore: Quickly flip through articles in the section you’re reading and find what interests you.”[9] But loyal subscribers to The New York Times respect the editors’ judgment and want to know what the editors feel is necessary to know. If a skimmer wants to find something that interests them, they will use Google to find it. Furthermore, The New York Times describes the redesigned digital edition as having easy access to sections, and a digital subscriber can “also make a list of shortcuts to your favorite sections.”[10] The prototype’s press release touts this customizable navigation bar as more efficient.[11] Instead, the press release should tout its continued tradition of “front-loaded” articles, which are ideal for the digital efficiency-maximizing skimmer. In addition to the necessary click to access an article, a customizable navigation bar will further isolate the subscriber-directed digital experience. A person subscribes to The New York Times for its unmatched editorial authority. A static navigation bar would preserve an editor-directed digital edition, which is necessary for The New York Times to continue to distinguish itself as “the newspaper of record,” retain its respected editorial authority, and repel the current self-curated social media “news feed” fad.

Technology has quickened the pace of modern life and consequently digital news consumers choose the articles they skim. Information is now needed urgently, and Daniel R. Schwarz notes “with the help of [the Internet and] Google, [we can] zero in on what we want more quickly than by turning pages of a newspaper.”[12] And Schwarz sites Professor Geri Gay’s research concluding, “people are more likely to skim stories online rather than read them carefully.”[13] In general, news skimmed on the Internet is self-directed, as the digital subscriber clicks on articles of interest; incrementally, power is transferred from the editor to the digital subscriber. Alex S. Jones explains, “news on the Web is almost entirely chosen by the viewer. You have to seek it out, which means that you can easily miss important stories or avoid troubling ones. Print newspapers had offered a smorgasbord, but you had to cast your eye over a range of information that included some hard news.”[14] The digital subscriber determines his or her online news consumption, unlike the print subscriber who is directed by the editor-determined layout. In 2006, Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations, acknowledged that The New York Times print edition is consumed differently compared to the digital edition:

[A] lot of people read the Times because it’s an enjoyable, relaxing thing to do. And that I think is the principal use [of]…the paper. It’s not, hey I’m going to go find a story in the Times today. [Rather] it’s I read it because I enjoy it. It relaxes me. I feel better informed after I read it….[I]t’s a valuable part of my life. On the web, it’s much more, it’s much more deterministic. I mean we do have some users who kind of read the web like they might read the paper. But most people read the web much more in a targeted way.[15]

Speaking in 2006, Martin Nisenholtz does acknowledge that editorial “gatekeeping” is somewhat significant to subscribers to The New York Times.[16] This view is obviously irrelevant now, as the 2014 website redesign trades its “gatekeeping” power for mass customization. Subscribers to The New York Times already make up a niche market and the stories editors deem important makes for a customized experience; if the digital edition is further customized, the subscriber will only skim stories that serve his or her own interests. Instead of reading news on free, less reputable, customizable websites, digital subscribers pay a fee and acknowledge how valuable the news reported by The New York Times is to their morning routine, fully preparing them for current event discussions throughout the day. If The New York Times conforms to the digital skimmer’s preferences, it will lose its most valuable possession, its editorial authority, its power to present subscribers with stories they would not have chosen for themselves and sway their opinion. The digital edition of The New York Times must preserve the valuable experience of the editor-directed print edition.

Ted Nelson’s dream of hypermedia & hypertext is manifested in the digital edition of The New York Times. While the editors of The New York Times still determine what stories are featured and the captivating headlines, skimmers self-direct their digital experience by clicking on articles that non-sequentially interest them. Nelson, who coined the terms hypermedia & hypertext, described how the human mind and its ideas are non-sequential, and consequently, “readers do better if they don’t have to read in sequence, but may establish impressions, jump around, and try different pathways until they find the ones they want to study more closely.”[17] A digital subscriber is able to hop around to articles in The New York Times that serve his or her interests and Schwarz describes how on the digital edition “audio, video, plain text, and nonlinear hyperlinks intertwine–one might say, build on one another–to create a generally nonlinear medium of information.”[18] However, this self-directed experience can box a subscriber in to his or her own preferences. If a subscriber only clicks on headlines that match his or her interests, the subscriber will miss the more difficult stories of the day, not to mention the rival political party’s point of view. Schwarz explains, The New York Times “has entered a brave new world where the emphasis is on giving readers a reason to enter its site and click on a story–any story.”[19] Schwarz misses a key point that The New York Times is an established news organization and this is the incentive to “enter its site.” A customized digital edition will erode its revered editorial authority. Forfeiting this editorial authority by accentuating the customizable hypertext aspects of the digital edition will conflict with its established status as the most-visited newspaper website due to its editorial authority.

The click necessary to access an article on the digital edition of The New York Times already diminishes opportunities to expand one’s knowledge base by happenstance and a customized navigation bar will only facilitate a dangerously self-directed digital experience. Traditionally, when physically turning the page of the print edition a reader might come across a story that they did not intend to read.[20] The New York Times editor Jonathan Landman explains the different implications of gatekeeping for the digital and print reader:

“One of the best things about reading a newspaper is serendipity. You turn pages and stumble across such interesting and unexpected thing…On the web, that’s harder to do. The web diminishes the power of editors, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good because it lets readers pursue their own interests, ignoring editorial judgment that doesn’t reflect their worldviews. It’s bad because editorial judgment can sometimes challenge people’s world-views in constructive ways.”[21]

The biggest asset of The New York Times is its editorial judgment that challenges its subscribers and sets the nation’s agenda. It needs to leave the ability to help web users find what interests them to Google. The New York Times is unfortunately planning to sacrifice its editorial authority to conform to the Internet’s norm of mass customization. The customized navigation bar expected with the 2014 design must be reconsidered, as it will cause the revered editorial authority of The New York Times to unravel.

The New York Times must not cater to the self-directed skimmer, but instead editors must continue to direct the subscriber to a variety of articles that need to be read to be a fully informed citizen. The New York Times has a loyal following because of its unwavering editorial leadership; a comprehensive, editor-directed experience must define the digital edition as well. The editors of The New York Times must direct the subscriber and not allow the subscriber to determine his or her digital skimming experience. To replicate the traditional newspaper experience and incentivise comprehensive article selection, the navigation bar should only feature the traditional section selection. The 2014 redesign should reconsider a customizable menu bar that features personal recommendations and allows subscribers to prioritize their favorite sections. The editors of The New York Times will preserve their traditional gatekeeping power by continuing to craft attention-grabbing headlines, choose the featured stories and publish “front-loaded” articles.[22] An editor’s job is even more indispensable to the digital edition of The New York Times. A print reader was confident that if it was featured in The New York Times it was must read. This trust must be translated to the digital experience, as digital skimmers determine their own experience by clicking.

Relevant to The New York Times transition of its print journalism from paper to computer screen is Henry Jenkins’s distinction between media and delivery technologies. Jenkins explains, “history teaches us that old media never die–and they don’t even necessarily fade away. What dies are simply the tools we use to access media content…Delivery technologies become obsolete and get replaced; media, on the other hand, evolve.”[23] While delivery technologies have short lifespans, a medium persists within a changing media landscape. The print journalism of The New York Times will continue to be an institution within today’s media landscape, as its “front-loaded” articles are ideal for the modern skimmer. Jenkins describes a historical trend that a medium’s content may shift, its audience may change, and its social status may rise or fall, “but once a medium establishes itself as satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within the larger system of communication options.”[24] The editorial authority of The New York Times satisfies a core human demand; people want to be fully informed citizens, presented with a wide range of important stories, so they can discuss current events with others. While a subscriber’s delivery technology of choice will shift from the print to the digital edition, The New York Times will continue to be indispensable.  Modernizing media landscapes change both how media is produced and consumed.[25] Print journalism will always be a medium, but how it is delivered–paper vs. screen– and consumed– read vs. skimmed–will change as technology changes the pace of the lives of modern subscribers to The New York Times.

With the 2014 redesign of its digital edition, The New York Times sacrifices its renowned editorial authority and conforms to the Internet’s norm of mass customization. The customizable navigation bar creates a subscriber, not editor, directed digital experience.  The reputation of The New York Times rests on its editorial excellence, it is the “newspaper of record.” The proposed 2014 redesign of the digital edition of The New York Times dangerously signifies its distinguishing birth; the digital edition’s subscriber-determined experience will be distinct from the print edition’s editor-determined experience. Originally when www.nytimes.com was created, the print and digital editions were indistinguishable. In 1996, www.nytimes.com experienced its integrating birth, as André Gaudreault & Philippe Marion, explain as “an extension of earlier practices.”[26] If implemented as marketed, the 2014 redesign will be the digital edition’s distinguishing birth, just as

& Marion describe, it acquires distinct institutional legitimacy when its quest for identity and autonomy is matched with institutional recognition and investment.[27] The digital edition of The New York Times is needlessly on a quest to conform to the Internet’s norm of mass customization, attempting to create a distinct identity compared to the print edition. The editor-determined experience of the print edition is the biggest asset of The New York Times. As the most-visited newspaper website, it has the opportunity to act as an innovator of web journalism, and is mistaken to implement a subscriber customization option.[28] Of course, the editor has transferred control to the digital subscriber, as sections and headlines must be clicked, so articles can be skimmed. A customized navigation bar will only exacerbate the self-directed nature of the digital edition and be detrimental to an editor’s ability to fully inform the subscriber. Plus, allowing a customized navigation bar is the cliff of a slippery slope towards a customized homepage.

The digital edition of The New York Times should continue to distinguish itself, just as the print edition has, with its excellent editor-directed experience that fully informs subscribers. The same techniques that made The New York Times the print newspaper authority should continue to cement it as an authority on the Internet. Jones describes the indispensable philosophy of Arthur Gelb, former managing editor at The New York Times:

‘Good stories!’ he would bellow in exasperation as he read of yet another news organization’s trendy experiment in trying to attract a crowd. ‘It is all about good stories!’ Then you surround those good stories with strong headlines–which is an art in itself. And you edit the stories so that readers don’t have to read ten paragraphs before they find out what happened yesterday.[29]

Continued use of traditional editorial tactics will translate the editorial authority of the print edition to the digital edition of The New York Times. Skimmers will dedicate their precious time, proving that regardless of delivery technology, The New York Times editor-determined experience provides them with a comprehensive set of stories and is an indispensable part of their fully informed morning routine. The New York Times must trust that its digital subscribers recognize their editorial excellence is too valuable an asset to sacrifice. If the redesign is implemented as described, one trend to track will be how many subscribers to The New York Times, already a niche market, further customize the editor-determined experience. Given this discussion, it can be expected subscribers will respect the unmatched custom experience created by the editors of The New York Times and will not further customize their navigation bars on www.nytimes.com. A well-organized reading experience featuring attention grabbing headlines and good “front-loaded” stories, regardless of changing delivery technologies, must continue to engage the subscriber and direct them through a comprehensive edition of The New York Times. Success for the digital edition of The New York Times will be achieved when skimmers click on the same amount of stories as print readers would have consumed with their morning coffee.

[1] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media:the Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 8.

[2] Mark Andrejevic, “The Work of Being Watched:Interactive Media and the Exploitation of Self-Disclosure,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 19, no. 2, (2002): 237.

[3] Alex S. Jones, Losing the News:The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 205.

[5] “The New York Times,” Nieman Journalism Lab.

[7] Tim Carmody, “Inside the New York Times’ web redesign,” The Verge, Mar. 13, 2013, http://www.theverge.com/2013/3/13/4094824/inside-the-new-york-times-web-redesign.

[8] Carmody, “Inside the New York Times’ web redesign.”

[10] Ibid.

[12] Daniel R. Schwarz, Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 150.

[13] Ibid, 151.

[14] Jones, Losing the News : The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, 180.

[15] Schwarz,  Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009, 129-30.

[16] Schwarz,  Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009, 130.

[17] Ted Nelson, “Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1974,” in Multimedia: from Wagner to Virtual Reality, eds. Randall Packer and Ken Jordan (New York: Norton, 2001), 159.

[18] Schwarz,  Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009, 119.

[19] Ibid, 116.

[20] Ibid, 121-122.

[21] Ibid, 122.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 13.

[24] Ibid, 14.

[25] Ibid, 16.

[26] André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, “A Medium is Always Born Twice…” Early Popular Visual Culture 3, no. 1 (2005):4 & 12 .

[27] Ibid, 4 & 13.

[28] “The New York Times,” Nieman Journalism Lab.

[29] Jones,  Losing the News:The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, 209.

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