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Guardian’s digital edition raises stakes

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The Guardian announced in July that it was joining the rest of the UK broadsheets (well, before half of them starting offering tabloid versions) in charging for some of its Web content.

Among the changes was the creation of a new digital version of the paper that would allow visitors to read its daily editions online while benefiting from the design and layout of the printed version.

"When it comes to newspapers on the Web, people want two things. A live up-to-minute extension of the paper, and a replica of the newspaper,” Simon Waldman, the Guardian director of digital publishing, told us at the time.

The Guardian is far from the first paper to produce a downloadable digital version of its printed paper. Papers across Europe and in particular the US have been at it for years and in the UK, The Times, Telegraph and FT already offer versions.

However, while most papers use one of the four or five main companies in the market to supply their digital edition, The Guardian chose to build its own proprietary software tacked onto its existing editorial system.

We thought we’d review it.

After some lengthy coding work and a bit of a delay, the Guardian’s digital version went live at the start of November and was put out to a public beta test on the 20th. You can sign up now for free and get a look at it.

Simon Waldman remains reticent about quite when the paper will start charging: “We will switch to the pricing when it suits us.” It will cost £99 a year or £10 a month (discounted at 30 per cent at the start - increased from 20 per cent when plans were announced in July), but there’s no harm if you’re a regular reader having a look now to see if you think it’s worth the money.

So what is it?

It is a graphic image of each and every page in that day’s paper. You can navigate the pages on the left of the screen very simply. A graphic of the page appears in the middle. Then you can either click on the part of the page you want to read or on the headlines on that page (in plain text to the right of the graphic) and the text of the story appears as text on the right-hand side.

The pictures (most of them - Waldman explains that there are still some copyright issue with some pictures) can also be clicked on to bring up a new browser window with a larger version. A pdf version of the whole page is also available for download.

Is it any good?

Yes, it’s extremely good. The navigation is surprisingly easy - you can jump to exactly where you want to be in no time at all; the graphic gives you an excellent view of the actual page; the click-on aspect works extremely well; and it is all very fast and efficient.

“There are a few bugs,” confesses Waldman, but they are mostly invisible to the user, he says, and all at the back-end. We have to say we haven’t found any with the exception that sometimes one picture brings with it the picture byline of a columnist or reporter.

The only one annoying thing is that the graphic of the page makes it impossible to read the smaller headlines of the page - something that is oddly distracting, even though the headlines to everything are given on the right of it. “That is one of the bits of feedback,” Waldman says, “but there is a compromise to be made if we change the size.” If the size is increased then something else may have to go. It’s far less of a problem with the tabloid-sized inserts.

How does it compare to the competition?

It’s better. The Times uses PayPerNews’ DIGI-dition, which is good but harder to navigate and quite irritating because the text is always brought up in a different box. It doesn’t give you the same seamless feel where you can see the designed page while also reading the news on it. It costs £90 a year (up from £75) but there are various options to break it down into smaller figures and time periods. Once, that is, News International sorts out a cookie bug it has at the moment. The cookie problem was such that The Times site insists on using cookies to let you into its subscription area. But even with cookies set on the widest, most stupid setting, the site still insisted you didn't have cookies on and would refuse access. (Editor's note: Kieren tried to access the site, using IE6 and Opera - Times International says it is unaware of any bug and that his assertion is based on "virtually no evidence whatsoever - three failed attempt to log in...There is a large body of E-Paper subscribers who use the system regularly and with very few problems. Similarly new subscribers join regularly, also, for the most part without problems.)

The Telegraph uses big player Olive. This US company is paid by some of the big American papers and enables you to customise it according to your tastes. It still relies on separate windows popping up with the text in though and it’s not as smooth as The Guardian’s version. It has three-month, one-month, one-week and daily subscription options - the cheapest of which works out at £149 a year.

The FT offers a simple pdf version but only of the front and back pages of the main paper and insert and only comes with a wider subscription.

Fortunately, no UK paper has signed up with what would appear to be the market leader - NewsStand. NewsStand requires you to download a bulky and old-fashioned piece of reader software and is the most annoying to use out of all of them.

So, overall, The Guardian is easily the winner. Plus, because it has developed the software in-house and it runs off the editorial system, doesn’t have to pay hefty fees to a third party to produce it.

So is The Guardian’s digital edition the future?

Well, that’s very hard to tell. Yes, it certainly raises the game - it is clearly a better offering than its competitors but there are a whole range of factors here.

  • Would anyone who wasn’t a Guardian reader spent £10 for a month’s worth of digital editions? Probably not.
  • Would a Guardian reader spend £99 in a lump sum for access to a digital version? Maybe. But if they have the paper delivered to their door every day, they would probably want to cancel it. That would require a leap of faith and a very computer literate individual.
  • Would occasional readers pay the subscription? Possibly. If they don’t have a daily commute in which reading the paper plays a vital part, it is very conceivable that they would part with their money. But there is still the issue that not only are you expecting people to change their habit from reading a physical paper, you are also asking them to change their paper purchasing habits - from paying a small amount of change whenever they want a copy to signing up to a longer-term subscription.

There remains of course the eternal issue and Holy Grail of micro-payments. If you could easily and simply pay just 30p online, not only would papers benefit but we would see a second Internet revolution. No one yet though has figured out quite how to do it.

But aren’t digital editions a step back from Internet technology anyway?

Well, yes and no. The idea of a digital edition of a newspaper was roundly laughed at a few years ago. It was people stuck in their ways not really getting what the Internet meant. Who, after all, would want a copy of something that is already out of date? Except people do want a solid thing to read. Most news items are fairly solid - at least for a day. Breaking news is something quite different.

And of course newspapers have to find ways of protecting transitory information in a short time-frame and make money from it. Digital editions make alot of sense in that respect. As people get more and more used to getting their information over the Internet, digital editions may fill a useful hole.

They will most likely also form a foundation for the services of the future. There is much talk of tablet PCs and e-paper and personalised news. And who’s to say some technology won’t appear that enables someone with a digital edition subscription to receive a news flash or an automatically created new front page while they are reading that morning’s edition?

Whether the Guardian’s in-house approach or its competitors’ third-party contracts end up being the more effective way to provide digital editions for the future is something it is impossible to predict. ®

Related links
Digital Guardian
Digital Times
Digital Telegraph

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