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The New York Times revealed a “prototype” of a new online “article experience” yesterday. Was it a bold technical experiment, a new multimedia whatzit, a paradigm-busting business model? No. It was just an article, laid out… readably. That is, in such a way to encourage reading. Ian Adelman, director of digital design at the Times, told me in an email that this “prototype” is intended to “create an appealing and engaging environment for our readers/viewers, as well as for advertisers.” You’d think that the essential, obvious point of a newspaper website interface is to do exactly that, and that the essential, obvious way to accomplish it is to set said interface up in a way that encourages reading, which is the essential, obvious thing that someone comes to a newspaper website to do. This, apparently, is innovative and risky enough to require prototyping? 

Counterpoint: The Daily Mail, a newspaper website whose interface intentionally doubles down on anti-readability – a strategy that wins them more unique users than any other news website and a 500% increase in revenue since 2008. Said interface won a prestigious award last month for its “effectiveness.”

Adelman told me that the Times’s prototype was motivated by post-PC devices “where tablet & touch interfaces dominate”, which require “a structure that will make it easier to integrate a wider range of graphics, pictures, video and other rich media experiences.” But this prototype isn’t a bellwether of some technology-driven pivot back towards immersiveness and readability in online news. If anything (especially juxtaposed against The Daily Mail), it’s a reminder of just how little these companies can assume they know about what their products are really for.

In pure machine-interface terms, The Daily Mail is “for” getting visitors to click a lot (to serve ad impressions), not read a lot. So the Daily Mail provides scads of affordances for clicking, often at the expense of those for reading. And it works like gangbusters (for now, anyway). That is all a technological interface has to do: work.

Meanwhile, the Times is emphasizing the affordances in its prototype for reading – and that’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? Sure. But being a machine “for” reading (as opposed to clicking, like The Mail) is precisely what online newspapers have struggled to make work for a decade already. Doubling down on readability the way The Mail does on clickability is refreshingly aspirational. But whether an aspirational interface like the Times’ prototype can translate into a truly effective one isn’t as clear.  

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