Having recently acquired a basic (non-3G) Kindle and keen as mustard for newspapers to find a way to survive, I decided to road-test the national titles currently available in the UK.
This is not intended as a review of the Kindle itself, but I must say I found it well thought-out, elegantly designed and easy to manage. Anybody toying with the idea of getting one should not be discouraged by latent technophobia – Amazon make the whole experience as simple as possible.
The national newspapers available at present are limited to the daily and Sunday editions of The Times, Telegraph, Independent and Mail. (The FT is available on six days and The London Evening Standard on five.)
All these publishers must feed their text into a common template, so I will start by describing what you do and don’t get for your money. For those unfamiliar with the Kindle, the display is monochrome and there is minimal graphic content beyond their masthead, so their contents look exactly the same. Only The Mail and The Independent included a bare handful of blurry photos, little larger than postage stamps.
Photos can only look good if they select better pictures and let them fill the Kindle screen. For example, portraits should be close-ups, cropped tight and blown large, so we can at least recognise Gordon Ramsey or Cheryl Cole. It serves little purpose to illustrate a story about public transport with a stock picture of a bus. The Kindle switches itself off when it has been idle for ten minutes and the pictures that fill the screen then are ideally suited to this medium, so it shows what is possible.
The latest edition is downloaded automatically via your home wi-fi (once that and your Kindle are both powered up) and is immediately listed in your Kindle’s ‘Home’ area, at the top of the list of all your books, magazines and so-on.
The ‘sections list’ is a two-column contents page, displaying the number of articles in Comment, Business, Sport, Features, etc.Clicking with the cursor on, e.g. the News heading will take you to the first of those articles, starting with a headline, a byline and a word-count. Pressing the big button calls up the next page and you may continue reading all the articles in the News section. Alternatively, you could view each of the headlines in this section, along with the byline and first three lines of copy, clicking on any that takes your fancy.
I miss the browsing experience that helps to make reading a printed newspaper such a pleasure, and the lack of colours and graphics make it a rather dull experience on the Kindle. There are no pull-quotes, no ornaments, no teasers to lure you to other pages or forthcoming features. There is no artistic flair, no variation in layout, no overblown heading at the top of a page to show one story is more important than another. I never thought I would miss the adverts we are so used to, but they also contribute to the newspaper reader’s experience. All the titles included the odd rogue character, spaces in the middle of words, hard returns mid-line. The device attempts to justify the single column but, in the absence of hyphenation, sesquipedelian prose and multi-hyphenated phrases leave some very short lines beforehand. There also appears to be a systemic problem with initial capitals, both within stories and for the signatures to letters, which are predominantly shown as lower case. Caps and small caps are even more confused.
There are other indications that the text is repurposed from newsprint as all titles featured copy referring to non-existent photographs; some even included their captions. Some items, such as a Q & A feature were not labelled with the subject’s name, so what should have been the nostalgic reminiscences of a retired sportsman became a puzzle to the Kindle readers as we struggled to identify the sports personality from the answers given to the paper’s questions. At least this helped to compensate for the puzzles so many of us enjoy in the printed editions – the crosswords, quiz, Sudoku and so-on were missing from all titles. Some headlines were inadvertently truncated, particularly in The Mail, offering another puzzle opportunity to guess the missing words. On the plus side, there is an excellent search facility and easily-accessible dictionaries. Readers may also highlight passages, append notes and take clippings, presumably functions designed for book readers.
The most glaring omissions, IMHO, were TV and radio guides and sports results. Although football scores were included in the stories covering the top games, the team I support is (temporarily) in League 2, and their games rarely merit an article. The only paper sure to cover all games in the Football League is The Times on a Monday. When I pay for a newspaper on a Sunday or Monday, the very least I expect is a classified results service, along with the current league tables. The only title that made any attempt at the tables was The Mail and look what a mess they made of them:
This looks more like a complicated replacement for the Sudoku than a snapshot of the Premiership title race. I can think of two ways around this problem, so it just makes the publishers look lazy or incompetent. I would also like to see a full radio and TV listing every day. Some of the titles did offer a ‘pick of the day’ but this hardly compensates.
The monthly price and daily contents (3 Jan 2011 edition) of the four sampled seven-day offerings compare as follows:
The Times: £9.99 / 186 items (5.3p each)
The Telegraph: £9.99 / 154 items (6.5p)
The Independent: £13.99 / 101 items (13.9p)
The Mail: £8.99 / 159 items (5.7p)
Each ‘item’ is an article of indeterminate length, so this comparison is hardly scientific, though it does suggest that the Independent’s pricing is out of line with its competitors.
Interestingly, The Times and Sunday Times edition included a promotion for their digital package for £2 per week giving full access to their online and iPad editions. These apparently include extras such as interactive ETV and radio guides, interactive world maps and, of course, colour, graphics, photographs, interactive audio and video content and adverts. The Kindle editions look dull, expensive and incomplete in comparison. They are also missing the magazines and picture-based features, such as consumer reviews. Indeed, it appears that neither expense nor effort has been incurred in preparing content for the Kindle format. Perhaps the number of subscribers via this platform does not justify it, but these devices have been selling like hot mince pies throughout the Christmas period, so there is a potential market. The Kindle also features a web browser, which operates via your wi-fi router, so you can quickly get an idea of all the content you are missing, albeit microscopically small, despite the magnifying glass.
Despite all I have said, I was very pleased to have an alternative when my paper boy failed to deliver one morning recently and if you suspect that my comments have been unkind, everybody is entitled to a free 14-day trial of any periodical, which includes newspapers, magazines and blogs, so you can make up your own mind. Just log on to Amazon.co.uk and give them a try – it is easy to cancel at any time.
It is worth noting that all the digital versions are much lower-priced than the original printed editions and offer another threat to their dwindling circulations. I only hope that the publishers find a business model that works for them while the old titles can still afford to subsidise the experimentation of their digital descendants. The clock is ticking.