The New York Times’s New App Tries to One-Up Facebook

NYT Now wants to resemble a social news feed—but without “the junk.”
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The New York Times Company

Today, the New York Times releases its new mobile news app, NYT Now. If you have an iPhone, you can download NYT Now, uh, now.

And even if you’re merely interested in how the Times—this Manhattan-born behemoth of American journalism—tells the stories and presents the information it knows about the world, it’s worth learning more about. As Josh Benton writes at future-of-news site Nieman Lab, NYT Now is “the most interesting mobile app from a traditional news company in years.”

It also reminds me of an older, more nuanced online news web.

Once upon a time, online news priorities were different. Rather than optimizing for “viral,” sharable content—and all the unique visitors that followed—outlets optimized for page views. They aimed to build engaged, repeat readers who spent long hours on the site. Instead of readers who moved from website to website, never staying long—like so many cattle roaming fallow hills—they tried to build return readers who felt rewarded by their long-term relationship with the site. 

It was the age of blogs. Then search engine optimization and the big social sharing networks came around. They could each deliver much more traffic than the experienced, intrepid blog readership that preceded them, and news organizations began to shift their focus away from rewarding repeat readers.

NYT Now excites me because it acts against that trend. Instead of rewarding readers with no home on the web, it aims to reward readers for returning, again and again and again.

It aims to turn browsers, in other words, into subscribers. 

The NYT Now Pitch

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.

Open NYT Now for the first time and you're presented with a little tutorial. "New York Times editors are updating NYT Now around the clock," it tells you, below a little pictograph of the Renzo Piano-designed Times Tower in Manhattan. "We handpick the most important stories from the Times, and the best from other sources."

The New York Times

Indeed, after the introduction, two feeds greet the reader: A news feed, and a curated feed. The news feed presents—in order of importance—Times headlines, photographs, and main points of a story in bullet point-form. In the morning, a friendly “Good Morning” sits atop the page, above the current location's weather and a “morning briefing,” a rundown of major news events overnight and that day, written for NYT Now readers. 

The curated feed presents a list of photos, blockquotes and tweet-length teasers for stories on other websites. They’re selected by NYT Now's editorial staff, and they resemble, in form and tone, news organizations's Facebook posts.

Beside the news and curated feed, there’s also a kind of Times-only Instapaper or Reading List, a place to save stories for offline reading.  

The morning briefing goes online at 6 a.m. It represents well what NYT Now is trying to do. In short, often one-sentence paragraphs, a morning briefing lays out the day's top headlines and what happened over night. On Wednesday, the app led with President Obama's "reigniting" the effort to raise the minimum wage, the earthquake off Chile, and Amazon's expected announcement of a streaming device. Its tone is comprehensive and straightforward.

That's Cliff Levy's goal for it, at least. Levy led the app's development. Before that, he helped develop the New York Today series of blog posts on the paper's city news blog. Like the app's morning briefings, New York Today also gave users a rundown of the major city news, along with commentary on the weather.

“Mornings are tough, life in New York is so tough, and we’re here to help,” Levy told me. New York Today aimed to be “your buddy in the morning.”

The buddy proved popular. Levy said that the blog post is often among the top three most popular articles on the site on iPhones between 7 and 9 a.m., and that the team receives thousands of emails from readers about how much they love the daily blog post.

Levy thinks news can be delivered in a similar way on people's phones. 

“The New York Times on a phone should be speaking to readers in a different way,” said Levy. It should be “more conversational” and “not catty.” Phones, he said, are where people store their contacts, their photos, their text messages—they’re an extension of people’s identity, and the Times has to account for that.

But, he added, “there’s a right time and a wrong time for the New York Times to use that voice.”

NYT Now adjusts its voice throughout the day. The morning briefing—and the salutary "Good morning" greeting—is not the only adaptation it makes. From 6am to 9am, it leads with the morning briefing. Around noon, it promotes a "lunchtime read"—a shortish article on an intriguing topic. At the end of the workday, it puts an evening brief at the top of the app, and from 9 pm to midnight, a "nighttime read"—usually a longer and more magazinesque story—sits atop the news feed.

“I am focused on this idea of habituation,” Levy said. “The Times has throughout its history focused on habituation. Dining came on Wednesday. Arts and Leisure came on Sunday. But not so much throughout the day.”

With features like the post-9 p.m. promoted longer article, he said, “you know that every night when you come to us, it’ll be there for you.”

NYT Now is also localized by time zone, at least in the United States. When readers in the Bay Area are checking their morning briefing at 8:30 a.m. local time, users in D.C. will see a promoted lunchtime read. 

“We want [users] to go into NYT Now when they have an extra five minutes,” said Levy, just like they would their Facebook. He added that many target users for the app ‘feel overwhelmed by their Twitter or Facebook feed”; they want it “minus the extra junk they don’t want to see.”

The news feed also ignores the Times’s breakup into “sections” and instead clusters stories by their being about the same topic. There might be a story-cluster about Malaysian Airlines flight 370, or the breakdown of Israel-Palestine peace talks.

The curated section of NYT Now, under the 
headline ‘Our Picks’ (The New York Times)

Farah Assir, who led NYT Now’s design, said that those clusters function as the architecture of the app. The design team had a breakthrough, she said, when they realized they no longer had to group content with one big story at the top and little stories below, as they do on the homepage. NYT Now allowed more nuance.

In the past, said Assir, “designers have had to create a bucket for this content that we know exists,” but they couldn’t play a part in the content’s creation. 

With all the adaptation of the news feed, it’s easy to miss the curation feed, but it may be just as big a deal in the long term. The series of articles, provided by the Times, of worthy, interesting news articles at other outlets constitutes the first institutional recognition on the part of the Times itself that good journalism might be happening elsewhere—and that they can benefit from it by linking to it. This linking, too, isn’t just an aside in a blog post: It’s a full feature and capability of the app, designed into its inception.

Assir talked about how they tried to tailor the appearance of each curated post to what best fit the story.

“Is it better told in a quote?,” she said. “Will an image tell it better than an article?” The team tried, she said, to treat “each piece of content individually.”

Turning Subscribers Into Revenue

What does NYT Now cost?

Well, if you already subscribe to the Times’s paper or digital edition, you get it for free. 

But the app was created to go after a new sort of customer. It costs less than the paper’s $15/month digital edition: Just $8 a month will bring you the mobile-friendly world of NYT Now. It’s one of three subscription mobile products around that price which the paper is creating this year: The other two are in food and opinion. 

I’m not sure whether subscribers will line up at that price point. NYT Now costs $96 annually, as much as a Netflix streaming plan. Will people be more willing to pay for Times journalism when it’s below the $10 mark? This is the paper’s bet, and I wonder if the price of NYT Now will decline in the next year.

NYT Now remains fascinating. As a testing ground, it hints at features that we might soon see in the paper’s main app—if NYT Now doesn’t become, for many users, as I anticipate it will be for me, the main new way of accessing Times content. And as a signal, it hints at something even nicer: a return to rewarding repeat readers.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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