Tech glitches mar electronic editions

Online replicas of print News and Post prove difficult to read and navigate

Dec. 30, 2006

by David Kopel

When the Blizzard of '06 hit on Dec. 20, the online Rocky Mountain Newsand Denver Postdid a great job of providing continuously updated news. The next day, the Postproduced a morning paper with a fine collection of blizzard stories, and theNewsdid even better.

Because deliveries of printed papers were impossible in many locations on Dec. 21, the Newsand the Postmade their new electronic editions available for free. The electronic editions, which normally require a paid subscription, provide a replica of every printed page in the newspaper.

Many newspapers have been creating electronic editions, for understandable financial reasons. Unlike the regular Web sites for most newspapers, the electronic editions raise revenue from readers by requiring paid subscriptions.

Although ordinary newspaper Web sites are attracting ever more readers, the revenue growth from Web advertising has been much slower. Newspapers raise much more advertising dollars per reader from their print editions than they do from their regular Web sites. Electronic editions partly mitigate the Web revenue problem because they include exact copies of all the ads from the printed editions (except for some advertising inserts), so the regular print advertising gets put in front of more readers. (And, therefore, can be sold to advertisers at higher prices.)

Of course the electronic editions are much less expensive for a newspaper to deliver, since there are no costs for paper and ink or for transporting the printed papers to customers. Some of the savings are passed on to customers; for the Newsor the Post, a one-year subscription to the electronic edition costs only $30, compared with $119.95 for home delivery of the printed edition.

But based on the current electronic editions, I'd say there's still plenty of room for improvement.

First, there are technical glitches. When I read the Dec. 21 electronic edition of the Post, only the front section was available, even though the PostWeb site promised that the full paper would be.

In the News, the front page featured an excellent photo of a man trying to get the front wheel of his vehicle unstuck while the blizzard swirled around him. But when I clicked on the picture to open it, the picture was displayed so that only a fraction of it was visible at once; there was no way to enlarge the picture to a full-screen view, to see the whole picture at once. The same problem was true even with smaller pictures on the inside pages (and for Postpictures too). To make things worse, when I first opened the electronic edition, the fractional picture overlaid the front page, obscuring the normal front page picture.

On my portable computer's 12-inch screen, the typeface for both papers was too small for comfortable reading, even when the page was maximized to the largest allowable size. In the default page size for the News, the print was nearly illegible.

When I clicked on a given article, a Web-formatted version appeared. The text was displayed in a single 5-inch column, instead of a pair of illegible 1 1/8-inch columns. However, the text that was displayed was still inferior to the version of the article that was formatted specifically for the "traditional" Web sites of the Newsor Post.

Some of these problems might not have been so bad if I had been using a 20-inch desktop monitor rather than a 12-inch portable screen. The electronic edition uses no more than 60 percent of the screen's width to display the newspaper; the rest is used for online advertisements, navigational aids, etc. Since the printed editions of the Newsand Postare about 12 inches wide, you need a screen width of about 20 inches for the online version to appear in the same size as the print version.

When I tried to go to, say, the fifth page of the Sports section, I couldn't just go there directly. I had to go to the first page of the sports section and then flip page by page. There's also a somewhat cumbersome table of contents, but it takes longer to use than just opening the printed paper to a particular page.

Biggest advantage of the electronic edition: Although the pictures are displayed in fractional format, the on-screen versions are far sharper, with much richer color, than in the print editions. The same is true for the advertising photos, including my favorite, the SolLingerie ads that often grace the business or Sports sections.

The News(Dec. 21) beat the Post in reporting that global mining company Rio Tinto Minerals will locate its headquarters in Greenwood Village. Both papers reported the happiness of local boosters, but the stories also should have included some critics of Rio Tinto's alleged involvement in human rights abuses and environmental destruction in locations including the Pacific island of Bougainville.  

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