Why The New York Times apps look different

“The battle will be won on the smartphone,” New York Times CEO Mark Thompson said at a tech conference last February.

The paper’s readers have increasingly been coming from mobile in recent years, and the Times has responded with a fleet of apps designed to draw in small, niche audiences to the paper. The NYT Cooking app, an opinion app, and NYT Now, which offers a single curated news feed, were designed mostly as evangelical products—to convert browsers into regular readers and eventually subscribers.

But these niche apps haven’t attracted the number of subscribers the Times was hoping for. The paper shuttered the opinion app in October, and last week it announced a retooling of its mobile apps. The NYT Now app, which had required a paid monthly subscription, will be free, while the paper’s comprehensive iPhone app is undergoing a transition to make it “more visual, more serendipitous, and to introduce a new mobile voice.” That new mobile voice will come from human editors, which the app is getting for the first time.

Despite the paper’s growing emphasis on mobile, the new apps were designed to build an audience and convert them to the Times’s other digital products. The easiest way to create a bunch of apps fast, according to Times vice president of product Alexandra Hardiman, is to automate the publishing process—“having the content flow downstream.” But automating creates a feed that looks like a miniature mirror of the homepage, with the same headlines, cover art, and article fonts flowing down to the apps. On the app every piece is presented in the same format, with a thumbnail photo, headline, and short summary. The only choice mobile editors made was what stories appeared on the feed. “We were editing with our hands behind our back while the phone is quickly becoming our most important platform,” says Sam Dolnick, senior editor for mobile.

According to Dolnick, the Times is reorienting its digital desk so that editors straddle between mobile and web stories, and editors will be better able to design stories specifically for mobile. To start, story formats will look different. “A magazine story will look special, with big custom photos and a handsome font,” says Dolnick. “An investigative story will have gravitas. If we spent a year on a story, you will be able to see that in the design. If a story is quick and light it will have whimsy.” Earlier this week, when a Times editor tweeted that the app was becoming “more human,” he meant that there will be humans behind it for the first time.

The editors are copying the playbook of the NYT Now app, which created an experience unique to mobile. The app emphasized its use of human editors, launching with the promotional tag line “New York Times editors are updating NYT Now around the clock.” The app, which pushed out updates to coincide with breaks in the workday, offered editors’ story picks from around the web alongside a curated feed of Times stories. Though the app failed to attract a large audience—it only drew 20,000 subscribers, according to Capital New York—Hardiman says the mobile-only presentation led to high engagement and retention rates. Six months ago the Times’s general app started publishing the morning update feature that began on NYT Now—a quick summary of the day’s news and weather. The feature has become one of the most popular on the app, perhaps because it was designed for a mobile audience.

That lesson—that content works best when it’s designed specifically for the platform, not just made to fit after the fact—informs many of the paper’s new mobile products, as well as the “one sentence stories” the Times is producing for the Apple Watch. In hindsight editors have recognized that many of the paper’s most successful mobile stories were—guess what—conceived for mobile. An interactive published during the 2012 election campaign that allowed users to identify the candidates’ body language was designed for the phone, meaning that “it was really sticky and gamelike,” Hardiman says. Other mobile features, such as a map of poverty rates across the country, took advantage of location information to show phone users where they were on the map. “On the desktop it was cool, but it wasn’t nearly as powerful,” says Dolnick.

But the real takeaway from the Times’s retool is that it isn’t enough to offer a platform without catering its content to the system. “Without a true intersection of the journalism and the user experience, you can only get so far,” says Hardiman. And as more and more readers turn to mobile, the goal is no longer to offer a system that syncs with the rest of your digital content to lure them to their computers. You have to make them want to keep reading on their phones. “We have no idea in what way tomorrow’s consumers will want to consume their media,” Zanny Minton Beddoes, The Economist’s newly appointed editor-in-chief, said in an interview last week. That means that editors can no longer think of mobile pages as a way to lure readers to the web (or digital as a way of luring readers to print). They have to meet them where they are.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.