Backwards Steps by the WSJ and NYT on iPad

The papers cripple everyday Web features in their apps for a walled-in environment

I compared the design and content of the Times and Wall Street Journal on the iPad earlier. Now let’s take a look at how you interact with their apps.

The early signs are somewhat worrisome, implying that these two papers think they can partially return to the cloistered existence of the pre-Web days. That’s clearly a mistake.

One big missing feature in the WSJ and NYT iPad apps: You can’t copy text. Take a screen cap of it all you want, but you can’t get the actual text. That’s a basic function on a computer, and the iPad has a clever cut-and-paste function, but it doesn’t work here.

That would seem to be a conscious decision and not just a missing feature in these quasi-beta apps. If so it will make it hard to blog or email about a story. Of course, it will also make it harder for people to rip off whole stories on splogs, and it could lesson the relevance of aggregators.

Neither paper embeds links in their stories. While links to a U.S. embassy news release in the third paragraph of its Pakistan attack story today, the Times app has no links.

It’s also worth noting that you can’t comment on stories in either the Journal or Times apps.

All this is going on with the Web as a backdrop, which makes the logic of these moves hard to discern. Indeed, if you want to share a story in either app, you click “email” and a URL pops up in the iPad’s email client.

If I’m reading a story in the NYT app and really want to copy a paragraph or two, all I have to do is open up my Web browser on the iPad, go to and do so. And let me tell you, browsing on the iPad is the best Web experience I’ve ever seen. The apps are nice, but hardly worth paying for when you can get the Web site for free (or for much cheaper, in the WSJ’s case).

I’ve argued before that the debate over these things is distorted because those who participate in it tend to be younger, earlier-adopting, geekier people who are more likely to create content. Most people don’t, and they probably won’t miss these functions.

But there’s a sizeable enough audience that will, and they drive a lot of traffic. Perhaps the papers can get enough subscribers or ad views to make the iPad a profit center. That’s unlikely with how the apps fit in with their current Web strategies.

It smacks of trying to put the horse back in the barn—and leaving the front door open.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.