Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
3/30/2009
01:20 PM
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Review: Detroit Free Press's Digital-Only Newspaper Delivery

This was the first day that my local daily newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, "delivered" an online-only edition. The execution was a bit clunky and confusing. But after slogging through it, I'm left with a sense of hope that daily newspapers might live on in digital form. I share with you my experience--your local newspaper could be next.

This was the first day that my local daily newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, "delivered" an online-only edition. The execution was a bit clunky and confusing. But after slogging through it, I'm left with a sense of hope that daily newspapers might live on in digital form. I share with you my experience--your local newspaper could be next.Background: The Detroit Free Press, which recently won several national awards for investigative reporting that sent the city's mayor to jail for fraud, announces that declining advertising and readership is forcing changes.

Beginning March 30, the Free Press will limit home delivery to Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. On remaining days, paying subscribers can log on to a newly developed online edition-to be far more detailed and rich than its longtime Web site, freep.com--or pick up a print version from a street box or store. The news sends ripples of fear and curiosity through the newspaper industry.

Eve of the big day: Wake up and get my fat Sunday paper from the mailbox. There's a two-page spread, heavy with graphic and text, explaining how to use the "e-edition," at digitalfreepress.com, which will publish for the first time Monday morning. I haven't finished my coffee and the intimidating instructional spread makes my head hurt, so I flip past it. I'll figure it all out when I sign on Monday morning, I decide.

Monday 7:30 a.m.: Prepare to take a frosty, early spring morning walk to the mailbox for the paper, which I prefer to read before work. Then I remember there won't be one. Oh well, I'll wait until I'm at my desk.

10:04 a.m.: I have been at work for over an hour. I have already checked the front page of Google News and a few national press sites. Headlines are typical of the times: Obama scolds automakers; family of five found dead in Santa Clara, Calif., in apparent murder-suicide; Gisele talks about life with Tom Brady; etc. Read some work-related trade-pub stories and blogs. Check Facebook and Twitter. Realize I forgot to check the new online version of my local newspaper.

10:05 a.m.: Go to freep.com. Look for where paid subscribers log on to get the spiffy new e-edition, but can't find it. Click on something that says "E-edition How-To," and wait through a download of 8.46 Mbytes. It's an instructional guide on how to navigate the e-edition, but still no log-on instructions.

10:16 a.m.: See, in tiny type on top bar of freep.com, something that says "e-edition." Click on that. It's the e-edition, all right, and it looks like I've got in without logging on. Could this be a first-day only thing? I want to set up a user name and password as a paid subscriber so I have no problem logging in tomorrow. I click on "my account" and get this message: " Sorry, Account is only available when logins are enabled and you are logged in."

I decide to ignore the log-in process for now and check out how this thing looks. The full graphical layout of any page is on the left; you click on a story and it appears to the right. You select pages via a drop-down menu. You can bump up the text size on any story (nice!).

I click on a button that would let me view the paper in double-page format, which would also let me flip through the pages by clicking on a page corner, but I get a message that says "initializing," and then a gray page.

10:20 a.m.: Go back to freep.com. Intrigued by story headline that says, "Demand for electronic edition causing delays." Click on that.

"Users of the electronic editions, exact copies of today's printed Detroit Free Press, are temporarily experiencing longer wait times for information to load. This delay is being caused by higher than anticipated demand during this peak time. The Detroit Media Partnership is working with its vendor, Tecnavia, to rectify this situation and broaden digital capacity… ."

10:30 a.m.: There's a "readers' comments" link to that story. Oh, this is going to be colorful. Readers can be so brutal, especially when they can hide behind a fake or non-identifying name. Can't help feeling sorry for the folks working triage at the Free Press today. Here's a few choice comments:

Judy905: Yes, the Detroit Free Press opened my eyes this morning. The first two times I tried to log in, I was directed to an interesting sexy site. Continued tries resulted in site not available and then incomplete loading of the site. I am finally in (it's 10:30 now) and while switching to the first article I wanted to read, it couldn't connect. The site is way to slow to load. It's going to take me until noon to read if I had the time to stick with it and forgo my job. Good idea, but poor execution.

Bfred 31: I woke up this morning to get my paper and handle my business. I cant take my laptop in the bathroom. Bring back the paper!!!!

10:40 a.m. I can't find anywhere on freep.com that tells me where to create an account for the e-edition. I type in "How to create an account for e-edition" into the search box. That takes me to a "your questions answered about the e-edition" write-up, which doesn't answer my question.

11:20 a.m. Head back to the "e-edition" to see how it reads. One extra step required with the online version: When you look at the full page to the left, it's so small that you really can't read anything but the headline. So you have to click on a story and pull it up to the right, to decide if you want to keep reading it. With the print edition, the headline-perusing process happens much faster.

11:22 a.m.: Ah-hah! An answer to my log-in question appears in a Q&A on page A2 of e-edition:

"QUESTION: I found after entering digitalfreepress.com there is no 'first time user button' to register. ANSWER: To ensure no users are blocked from accessing the e-Edition among heavy traffic, for a few days as we welcome subscribers, we have bypassed the log-in procedure for now. Going to digitalfreepress.com will take you straight into the electronic edition of the Free Press. Later this week, the landing page will provide instructions on how to register… ."

11:25 a.m.: Curious about the advertising model of e-edition, I click on a rotating screen of retailer icons under the heading, "Browse Your Weekly Circular Ads." I click on a retailer logo. After a minute it's still loading "3 out of 4 items." I give up and close it.

On page A2, I click on a quarter-page ad for an auto dealership. It opens up fine. Another full-page ad for Macy's cosmetics looks great.

11:33: Still don't like that full pages look so tiny. One saving grace: If you pass your cursor over a headline, a pop-up box repeats the headline and the sub-headline in an adequate type size.

All pages of the e-edition start with A; there are 32 pages in this morning's edition. You can navigate by section: Metro, Nation + World, Life, etc. You can print an article, email an article, and print the whole thing out as a PDF file if you'd like. You can download it in PDF to your laptop and read it offline. Navigation from page-to-page and back and forward through pages A1 to A32 seems easy enough.

11:42. I've browsed through the e-edition and read several stories. I may go back and read more later. Positives: The navigation is pretty good. The ability to bump up the text size is a simple but hugely beneficial feature. (With the print edition, if the light isn't good, my over-40 eyes often require reading glasses.) Graphics and page ads look nice. Ability to print, download, and email articles is nice.

Negatives: The Detroit Free Press's e-edition was having a bit of a rough morning; hopefully it works the kinks out soon. Reading the e-edition requires more steps than simply flipping through a print edition. The Flash-based double-page mode wasn't working on the first day for me. (That may have made a dramatic difference, since you can tap a corner to flip to the next page.) From a cultural standpoint, many of us will have to readjust our morning routines. I don't like to waste work-time reading my local morning paper, but don't really feel like booting my laptop up at the breakfast table. (Kindle users will be happy to know it'll be available on that device in 30 days.)

Summary: I've been initiated into the brave new world of digital-only daily newspaper delivery. There will be readjustments, for sure. But the Free Press gets props for blazing a trail, and being brave enough to know it'll learn painful lessons along the way-lessons that other daily newspapers will benefit from. Because whether it's next month or next year, your daily, local newspaper may be next.

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