The Times Apps: Reading behind a paywall has its disadvantages

Posted on by Mike Evans

For the past three years since I stopped buying a daily newspaper I’ve relied exclusively on free RSS feeds for my consumption of news. This approach has its disadvantages, not least of which is repetition as stories are updated during the day, but perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of involvement and a the loss of that feeling that you’ve gone through the paper from start to finish.

The big advantage of the newsfeed approach, however, is that you are getting news as it happens, a sort of written version of a 24-hour news channel.

Up to now I have resisted any subscription-based iPad apps, both on cost (why pay for something that is available elsewhere for free?) and convenience. Scanning RSS news feeds in Mr Reader or Reeder is quick and painless and you tend to read only the things you are really interested in. Added to this is the supreme convenience of being able to send any longer articles to Instapaper for reading at leisure.

The currently low cost of The Times and Sunday Times combined subscription encouraged me to have a go. I was offered a month of weekday and Sunday editions for just one pound. Thruppence a day can’t be bad. Future weeks will cost an affordable £2, that is until they decide to dispense with the loss-leader pricing. So really it was a no brainer.

How is it working out? I have to say that I am generally impressed with the apps. Navigating and viewing the newspapers is actually an improvement on reading the paper editions. It is also a much improved experience over visiting a newspaper web site. There you are continually hunting around, following links and getting back to the wrong place. The apps work on both the iPad and the iPhone or iPod touch, although navigating on the smaller screen is less involving.

The apps on the iPad are laid out in a logical fashion and you always remain in control. Every section has a newspaper-style front page with a summary of the main stories. Clicking the first story takes you to a full-screen view, with photographs, and you then simply swipe to the right to move from article to article. In effect it is exactly like reading a real newspaper only better: There is none of this “go to page three to continue reading” nonsense. Everything is presented story by story. It’s surprising, though, how often you find yourself repeatedly right-swiping to skip items of no interest.

But there are some problems. The Times and Sunday Times are totally closed systems behind the paywall. There is no way of bookmarking or sharing links and, even if you could, others would not be able view the page without paying a subscription.  As an avid RSS addict I can easily email a link or send the page to Instapaper, I am continually frustrated by the inability to do the same in these paywall apps. I wonder, really, why am spending time reading a paper when I can do nothing with any news story that interests me. I am driven to making notes of news items or comment that I would like to read later.

Another surprising downside is that reading the paper is time consuming. I had almost forgotten what it is to sit down with a newspaper and spend an hour or so moving through it in analogue fashion. I can polish off the daily news in much smarter fashion in Mr. Reader or Reeder.

Downloading is fairly rapid over wifi but I would not recommend using 3G, mainly because of the amount of data consumed. It’s a problem when abroad and subject to data roaming charges. Downloading The Times could cost a small fortune and give you a holiday hangover when you get the bill at the end of the month.

The Times comes in one chunk, so you have no option to limit the download. The Sunday Times, on the other hand, allows you to choose the sections you wish to see. It’s the digital equivalent of leaving the newsagent with the weighty Sunday paper and ditching half the sections in the nearest waste bin. Which is what I always used to do in the old days. 

I find myself reading only four sections of the daily Times (News, World, Opinion, Business) and ignoring the other seven, including the large sport section in which I have zero interest. I am therefore paying for a lot of stuff I don’t want, even though the subscription is currently low. It’s even worse on Sundays, although there are more sections of interest, including technical, motoring and the magazine.

After three weeks of diligent reading, I conclude that the Times apps provide a daily magazine with background on news, not actual news. They are no longer a news source because the Internet now does that better. With The Times I am actually reading yesterday’s news but with an interesting gloss and some excellent comment.

Generally, the two apps work slickly, although there is a puzzling delay of up to 30 seconds when waking from sleep. I suppose this is the need to reload the data. It can be annoying if you break off to check an email or text; going back into the app seems to take for ages.

Accessing The Times and Sunday Times for £2 a week is good value for money. But I do not think I would pay more and, frankly, I am not sure how long I shall subscribe even at this low rate. Both apps make a very good fist of delivering a traditional newspaper in an electronic wrapper. If that’s what you want, you will be happy.

The trouble is, I do not know how long the traditional newspaper model will last and I’m don’t think I really want one any more.  We are no longer prepared to wait until the following morning to read today’s news. It is comment and features that make these apps worthwhile, at the right price, but I find the closed system restrictive and irritating after experiencing the freedom of reading via the web for the last few years.

I will give Times Newspapers an eight out of ten for effort and success in reproducing the feel of a daily newspaper. Value for money is ten out of then. But overall, bearing in mind the restrictions on syndication, they deserve no more than a four.

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