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In The New York Times’ New Summary App, A Glimpse At The Future Of Reading

Mobile might be the biggest transition for news organizations since the World Wide Web–and the New York Times is on it.

On March 8, the New York Times unveiled a new app called NYT Now that signals a major shift in how publishers package the news. For $8 a month, NYT Now will offer users access to a limited number of stories, and those stories will be presented in a totally new way (for the Times, that is): as a series of cards, one per story, with an image and, at most, two bullet points summing up the news. “It’s not a news summary app,” is the first thing Cliff Levy, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner tapped to lead the NYT Now team, told me in a phone interview. I got a detailed description of how it works, how it looks, and what its aims are, and here’s my takeaway: NYT Now is a news summary app. But thanks to its design, it may actually work as intended–and what’s intended is to be as native to mobile as the newest version of NYTimes.com is to the web.

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Circa, a summary app not associated with NYT Now, is nonetheless an example of a similar idea.

We’re now entering what publishers are seeing as the third big phase of news consumption (the first being print, the second web): mobile. According to Levy, “anywhere from 40% to 60% of our overall digital traffic” is on mobile devices, whether that’s by going to NYTimes.com on a mobile browser or reading one of the Times’ existing mobile apps. So news organizations think they need to optimize for the unique ways mobile users read. A Pew survey found that though 61% of respondents read longer stories on their smartphones, only 11% do it regularly. What mobile users are doing, we think, is skimming: skimming headlines, skimming Twitter, getting the gist of things before popping their phones back in their pockets.

Smaller companies started building news summary apps similar to NYT Now years ago. The most notable, Circa, threatened to upend traditional publishers when it was released in 2012, with what one writer described as a formula for “reinventing the news story, fixing what older media organizations had demonstrated they couldn’t, and effectively doing it all on the backs of existing media properties.” That the New York Times, the very definition of old media, is joining the fray suggests an important shift in what the news looks like–and how we consume it.

The Brave New World Of Mobile

The goal of these apps is to adjust the news for mobile readers. And mobile readers aren’t quite like web readers or print readers. Analytics firm Localytics found that mobile news readers are doing something akin to “snacking”: instead of reading the morning paper, or diving deep into news sites on a lunch break, mobile users pull out their phones often, multiple times a day, for shorter lengths of time.

The last time a major platform change like this happened, it was in the shift from physical newspapers and magazines to websites, a change which resulted in the shutdown of dozens of major publications and a general sense of panic in the industry. It turned out to be wildly difficult to make that transition; generally speaking, the publications that thrive online are either the big boys of the industry (like the Times, Guardian, and BBC), which to some degree figured out the Internet, or the ones that started online, whether that’s Gawker or BuzzFeed or the Huffington Post, most of which are hugely profitable.

But the next transition is mobile, and it presents many of the same fundamental challenges that the transition to web had. People are reading the news in a different way, on different devices, and different tactics work best. Merely plopping content from another format onto mobile doesn’t quite work. “Many news apps use summaries that were originally created for the web, for reading on like a large desktop computer in 2002,” Levy says.* “They’re not optimized for smartphone readers.” The Times is wary of a growing percentage of users that read Times articles on mobile devices, and is rightfully afraid that it will lose readers to more mobile-focused offerings. (Levy notes that the number of readers on mobile skyrockets during breaking news events especially.) “We set out from day one to create a native news experience from the New York Times rather than ‘the New York Times on your phone,'” says Ben French, the head of the business side of NYT Now.

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Introducing The Summary App

And that native experience appears to be a summary app. There are other summary apps out there: Summly was created by a 15-year-old and sold to Yahoo a year and a half later for $30 million; Summify, an app released in 2011 that gave you links to a mere five “essential articles a day, sold to Twitter; Wavii, which used algorithms to summarize the web’s chatter about a topic of your choice, sold to Google in 2013. Circa, perhaps the best-known and boasting similar design to NYT Now, is still independent, for the moment.

NYT Now takes the attitude, as do other summary apps, that the best way to attract a reader’s attention on mobile is through a “here’s everything you need to know” approach. The idea is that at a glance, you can get a sense for what’s going on in the world, rather than having to pore through sections and stories as you would on a more traditional app or site. What NYT Now is doing is like an elaborate New York Times-centric Twitter feed: instead of a headline and a link, you get bullet points, a picture, and a link. And you’re relying on the NYT Now staff to pick the stories you care about. It’s almost like a newsletter, except it updates constantly instead of being sent once a day.

That’s Circa’s strategy, too, but Circa’s articles have facts sometimes drawn from dozens of different sources, all combined into a constantly updating meta-article. (One of Circa’s founders compared it to a live-updating Wikipedia page.) A Circa story is definitely unlike a standard article in presentation, but it’s also not much like a standard article in content.

The Look, The Feel

NYT Now will look like a combination of Twitter and something like Google Now: a vertical list of “cards,” discrete rectangles that each represent one story. Those cards will have a picture and one or two bullet-points summarizing a longer story. Tap on that card and it’ll take you out to the full story. “We’re obsessively focused on scanability, to ensure you can just scan through the most important points of major stories,” says Levy. You’ll get only about 10 or 15 stories per day, selected by New York Times employees. You can read those stories in full but your subscription to NYT Now, which will cost $8 per month, does not include access to the rest of the Times. (Those with the $15-and-up subscriptions to the Times online, and print subscribers, will be able to use NYT Now for free.) It will also include articles from other publications, selected by the NYT Now team.

“There’s going to be really high-quality photos, really excellent photojournalism,” says Levy, “and video as well.” The actual creating of the cards on the app will be done by a team of about 20 editors and writers, who will be in charge of selecting the Times stories (and a few from other publications) that they will then rearrange and summarize until it’s all mobile-friendly.

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What makes NYT Now potentially successful is that it has a simple design and thematic sensibility–similar to Circa’s–but without the sour taste in the mouth that an all-aggregation app can leave. These are New York Times employees summarizing the work of other New York Times employees; nobody’s getting exploited here. The editors of NYT Now will be presenting in-house stories, just chosen through a slightly different lens than the front page of NYTimes.com. “The reader doesn’t always say ‘I want the New York Times front page’ for every single moment,” French says. “Very early on, we tried to identify all the various moments that connected to the user’s news day. What do they need or want when they wake? Or when they’re standing in line at lunch? Waiting for a friend in a coffee shop?”

The Big Question: Will It Work?

These are basically uncharted waters for a so-called legacy media company. “No one can know, of course, whether it will succeed,” wrote Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ Public Editor (the person tasked with reporting on the Times, in the Times.) “Will people (largely younger digital natives) really pay $8 a month for a mobile app, even if it does offer the Times’ signature journalism?” Yeah, I don’t know either. I suspect the Times would have more success if the NYT Now app were ad-supported and free, with an eye to up-selling readers to the full $15-per-month subscription; as it stands, the app costs the same as “premium” Internet services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, and very nearly the same price as Spotify and Rdio. Will readers want to pay a “premium” Internet price for limited Internet content? I’m not sure. The Times isn’t sure either. But what they are banking on is that the problem of moving to mobile can be solved with design and optimization–because they sure as hell don’t want to change their content.

*This quote was originally applied to the New York Times site’s design, rather than news summaries (or “decks,” in journalism language) as Levy intended. We apologize for the error.

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About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law

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