Reviewing digital newspapers

One of the (happily few) disappointments of living in France is the difficulty and expense of buying an English newspaper. In time, I hope to read Le Monde and perhaps even Le Figaro. But until then, I’m happy to be reliant on ‘journaux anglais’ – a phrase I know well because I’ve said it in many tabacs in both France and Switzerland to little avail.

We live a little out of town, so the local tabac doesn’t sell an English language newspaper. We could go into Geneva, where several shops sell them – but not as many as you’d think, since the Swiss enjoy a Sunday free from shopping, and even smaller shops close. And it’s the weekend newspapers I miss most. I’ve used the web for news, and WRS (World Radio Switzerland) is in English, and both have served me well. Accepting that I wouldn’t have something to read in the garden away from a computer, I thought I’d try the digital editions offered by The Times and The Guardian.

Both use a more or less identical engine for the main functionality of the paper, provided by NewspaperDirect.inc. You can turn pages, zoom, copy articles, email them, all the things you would expect in a front end that does its best to approximate the real thing. What’s striking is the difference that the format makes. Sure, you could get more or less the same content via an RSS feed or through the newspaper website. But seeing the news in high-res spread across a large-ish screen is very satisfying and it’s one of the reasons I’ll subscribe.

The Times e-edition front page

The Times e-edition front page

The right-hand navigation panel gives useful previews of pages and means you can navigate the paper quickly. If it all looks a bit busy, you can minimise the clutter and just look at the pages. I found moving within the page a bit difficult and the mouse movements counter-intuitive. It just takes getting used to and others might find it suits them. You can open an article and read it in a non-newspaper box, which looks more like the website and undermines the illusion a bit. There’s lots of other things you can do with an electronic newspaper, too – like search, or just look at the pictures.

Where The Guardian group’s Digital Edition adds further value (The Times call it their e-paper) is the ability to share content through a variety of social networking tools. Articles can be saved to Delicious, shared on Facebook or blogged and so on. The latter function has it for me: it makes sharing the content much easier, something that I hope will prompt a some sharing on this humble blog. It is illustrative, I think, of The Guardian Group’s growing embrace of the web, although the sticky subject of how old media will survive or not is still unresolved.

The Guardian Digital Edition frontpage with share icons

The Guardian Digital Edition frontpage with share icons

Both are relative cheap services, too. You can pay a whopping 7.50CHF (Swiss Francs) for a bonafide paper copy, which is about £4 for a Sunday paper that’s sometimes incomplete, with often the best supplements are missing (meaning it lacks the heft of a Sunday paper and therefore one of its most attractive qualities). It will cost only £4.99 a month for The Observer; £3.99 for a month’s worth of The Sunday Times. I guess the extra pound pays for all that social networking goodness. Both have mobile-friendly editions, so you can use your mobile device for the odd read although like many things the screen might be too small for prolonged reading. You can also download if you plan to be offline.

Despite this, I’d really like to see some of the excellent multi-media material we find on both news websites (and especially The Guardian’s) integrated into the editions. Although you can listen to the Guardian’s stories (a function I’ve been unable to get to work), in an ideal world both could follow the example of ‘electric!’, a rich media publication from Virgin Media, which uses the Ceros engine. Superb interaction, although quite unlike a conventional newspaper reading experience and appealing to different markets, a hybird which incorporates existing audio/video from the sites seems possible (from this distance). The image below offers video playback embedded in the publication, and there’s audio too. Try ‘electric!’, you might like it, if not the name.

electric! is a rich media publication from Virgin Media, powered by Ceros

electric! is a rich media publication from Virgin Media, powered by Ceros

So, I’ll have to compromise: I won’t be able to shape a paper copy to my whim, read it in the garden or at the cafe. Lamenting this, in the never ending pursuit for that elusive hardcopy,  I ventured out to the Swiss / French border near Perly following a rumour that they sold English newspapers. Success of sorts: I did find a single copy of the Sunday Mail. It may still be there for all I know: there are standards.

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