NY Times administers coup de grâce to crippled website

Death by a thousand gimmicks

The New York Times website has certainly seen better days. The financially-strapped company blundered late last year with its TimesSelect gimmick, placing its regular columnists behind a subscription scheme and strangling its circulation.

Until the TimesSelect fiasco, the regular columnists were nearly always among the "most emailed" stories on the site. Nowadays, one of them might show up as "most emailed" monthly, if that. How happy they all must be.

Personally, I won't miss Kristof's unhealthy fetish for suffering girls; Dowd's and Rich's determination to stretch the limits of English by writing the same two articles as many times as humanly possible; Friedman's wholly imaginary expertise in development economics; Brooks's unique blend of chirpy bourgeois confidence and Panglossian bromides; or Herbert's morbid fears. Tierney, who replaced the plodding and bombastic Safire, and not a moment too soon, disappeared behind the Greenback Curtain before I could form an opinion, which leaves Krugman as the only columnist I've found worth reading occasionally.

Only, I'm not nearly fan enough to pay 50 bucks a year for his column. Maybe 10 - maybe. Which brings us to why TimesSelect is a failure - except, perhaps, to the bean counters: most readers have one or two columnists whom they follow, but only read the others when they're bored or feel the need to sneer at something. The TS price is based on the foolish assumption that readers will pay ten bucks a year for each of the columnists, whereas an à la carte service might actually have worked.

It would not take much at this point to persuade one to delete the NYT website from one's bookmarks. The same news is available anywhere, unless you're looking for WMD hype from a sock-puppet of Ahmed Chalabi that helps start a war, or news about an illegal Bush Administration domestic spying program, quite relevant to the 2004 elections, that the paper spiked until more than a year after the elections, or something like that.

The restaurant reviews are painfully soft, essentially BJs for the city's celebrity chefs and major restaurateurs, and the book reviews - except those from the regular staff - are a forum for reviewers to exhibit all the long, thick, hard books they've read, and lecture their own views on the subject, while ignoring the book under review entirely.

So you would think that a little incentive to stick with the site would be in order. Instead, it's lately been transformed into a crowded visual wasteland, and one inconvenient to navigate, at least for those wise enough to surf the web with JavaScript and other potentially dangerous active content disabled.

Here's what it looks like in Mozilla:

Mozilla looks good

It's a real sensory overload, with indistinct, overlapping columns, and numerous links that don't work if JS is disabled. There's little visual hierarchy. It's all a muddle.

It looks a bit cleaner in Firefox, but it still suffers from crowding and a homogeneous look:

Firefox looks better

Essentially, it's more text, more links, and more buttons, whistles, and bells, crammed into slightly more space. And the paper seems rather proud of this accomplishment:

"We have expanded the page to take advantage of the larger monitors now used by the vast majority of our readers. We've improved the navigation throughout the site so that no matter what page you land on, you can easily dig deeper into other sections or use our multimedia," NYT editor-in-chief Leonard M Apcar explains.

To be fair, the W3.org markup validator found only 338 errors on the NYT home page, which is not that bad, compared to technology news outfit c|net's 449 errors.

So this, then, is the Gray Lady's answer to its loss of credibility, from the Jayson Blair fiasco, to Judith Miller's hard-selling of the Iraq war with absolute rubbish for sources and zero evidence, to spiking a story with serious implications for the 2004 elections: more buttons, whistles, and bells.

The management should be bloodying their knees apologising. Instead, they're distracting us, hoping we'll be captivated by their poorly-executed high-tech gimmickry.

The Gray Lady has truly hit rock bottom. ®

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