Can the Kindle Save the L.A. Times?

I’ve developed something of a love like/hate relationship with the Los Angeles Times (LAT) over the past decade. I love like the LAT as a news source, but I hate the LAT as a physical product.

It’s been a long downhill slide for the physical edition of the Times since they scrapped the tabloid format Calendar section, then split that section into multiple parts. That change worked out so well they decided to make the same mistake with the Comics. If you’ve ever spent a Sunday afternoon searching for the Business section buried deep in the bowels of the auto classifieds, then you know just how bad the LAT reading experience can be. It’s like a fracking scavenger hunt.

Apparently the LAT unveiled a new design earlier this week. To which I can only say, so what? Each iteration of the paper’s physical design seems to make the news reading experience just a bit worse. Even if this new version of the Times is a huge improvement, it’s still too little too late. The days when I’ll buy a print edition of the LAT are long gone.

Walking out to the curb to pick up a soggy bundle of yesterday’s news seems like an antiquated concept. And yet, that’s exactly what I had been doing until very recently. The sad truth is that my LAT subscription remained active until just a few months ago.

While I get most of my news online, I continued to read just enough of the LAT print edition to justify the cost. Or maybe not. Home delivery of the print edition is damn expensive. Nearly as much as my DSL subscription. In retrospect, I think it was more of a weird sense of civic responsibility that compelled me to keep my subscription.

I finally canceled my subscription when I learned that the LAT is available on the Kindle.

Reading the L.A. Times on a Kindle

Initially I was quite pleased with the Kindle edition of the LAT. The paper is waiting for me on the kitchen counter every morning as I start the coffee. Never soggy from the sprinklers, never missing a random section.

In some ways this is exactly the LAT reading experience that I had always longed for. The entire paper presented in an orderly and logical manner without annoying advertisements.

Beyond the convenience factor, there are a number of other advantages to the Kindle edition:

  • It’s less than half the price of what I was paying for home delivery of the print edition. For some reason I was paying almost $24 per month for print. I’m sure I could have negotiated a better rate, but who wants haggle with newspaper telemarketers?
  • It’s greener than the print edition. I know, the Kindle isn’t necessarily a green device, but a LAT subscription uses A LOT of paper. Not to mention the energy required for printing, distribution, disposal, and recycling.
  • It’s less work than the print edition. No more stacks of newspaper to shuffle around the house. No more papers to lug out to the curb for recycling.

So, what’s not to love? Surprisingly, quite a bit. After my initial infatuation with the LAT Kindle edition wore off, I began to focus on some rather annoying limitations.

  • No images of any sort. No diagrams, tables, or illustrations. No photos. No comics. NO COMICS!? No wonder the Kindle edition is cheaper than the print edition.
  • Limited skimming. The top stories display a very brief summary. Many of the stories below the virtual fold display only the title. A surprising number of titles are not self explanatory (journalism 101, anyone?), meaning you have to click through to find out what the story is about. The Kindle is not exactly what I would call speedy, so this process can get tedious.
  • Paging through the news as opposed to scrolling through the news. The first week of reading the LAT on the Kindle I found myself attempting to scroll through stories using the Kindle scroll wheel. Instead, I had to train myself to use the page buttons. It’s like reading a paperback edition of the LAT, which is something that I find to be completely unnatural.

    Strangely, I have no trouble flipping pages on the Kindle when I’m reading books. This scrolling preference is clearly something I’ve developed from reading news online. I suspect this small interface quirk speaks volumes about the Kindle’s suitability as a replacement for reading news online.

  • The Kindle is wireless, but it’s not connected. Reading the LAT on the Kindle is like reading an ebook of a newspaper. It’s a straight analog to digital conversion (minus the images and tables) with none of the benefits traditionally associated with digital news distribution.

    Just like the print edition of the LAT, the Kindle edition exists in total isolation from the rest of the world. Stories are not updated after they’ve been published. There are no hyperlinks. I can’t bookmark a story in a way that would be accessible from a computer. I can’t email a story to a friend. And, if I want to blog about a particular story, I have to go online and find it on the LAT website so that I can link to it.

    Yesterday Joe Wikert’s was fantasizing about twittering from his Kindle. It’s an intriguing idea that points to exactly the kind of integration Amazon needs to add to the Kindle. As it is now, the Kindle seems to exist in a parallel universe where Web 2.0 never happened.

Reading the L.A. Times on the Web

At this point you might be thinking, “why doesn’t this guy just read the Times online like everyone else?” Fair question.

Unfortunately, over the years my experience with the LAT website has been almost as frustrating as my experience with the LAT print edition. To be fair, the LAT website has improved considerably over the past few years. Unfortunately, as with the print edition, they lost me before they made the improvements.

But that’s only a small part of why I don’t spend much time at the LAT website. Over time my news consumption habits have been fundamentally changed by aggregation services like Google News and augmented by an RSS reader stuffed to the brim with news feeds.

On any given day I’ll follow dozens of links to different news sources, including, occasionally, the LAT website. However, the amount of time I spend with any single news site is negligible. And the thought of going to any one newspaper’s website as a starting point never enters my mind. That’s not the way we gather news in the 21st century.

Why the Kindle Won’t Save the L.A. Times

I expect that Amazon will eventually address many of the issues that leave me wanting more from the Kindle edition of the LAT. Unfortunately, that probably won’t be enough to save the LAT, or any other newspaper.

The newspaper business is in a bad place right now, and newspapers need to reinvent themselves quickly. Kindle is an expensive niche product and will probably remain that way for at least a couple more years. There are quite a few things that newspapers need to be doing to prepare for the future. Depending on the Kindle, or any other proprietary reading device, is not one of those things.

Still, it seems likely that I’ll maintain my Kindle subscription for the foreseeable future. If for no other reason, because of the same weird sense of civic responsibility that caused me to maintain my print subscription for so long.

At least I won’t be lugging newspapers out to the curb on garbage day.

6 Responses to “Can the Kindle Save the L.A. Times?”

  1. Tom Bohs says:

    I agree with everything you say. I’m a newspaper journalist and a Kindle owner. I’d like to hear your thoughts on what you think newspapers should do. No one in the business seems to have a clue. My company, Gannett, may be on the right track by expanding everything to the Web and introducing many new Web-based products and features that can be linked together across platforms. But the change is in its infancy and I don’t think the public, let alone Wall Street, yet sees what Gannett is doing.

  2. Tyson says:

    I’m 37 and have been a happy subscriber to the LA Times for 17 years. Even in lean times I have ditched other expenses over keeping the newspaper (try doing the daily crossword puzzle on the Kindle).

    My wife and I don’t mind reading 12-hour-old news. If there is something happening RIGHT NOW in L.A. (riots, wildfires, etc.) yeah we’ll go to the Web first but we don’t see the problem with getting well-written analysis of news at 5:00 a.m. in the morning instead of breaking news at 10:00 p.m. the previous night.

    I’m terribly saddened by what’s going on with the economics of the newspaper industry. I would prefer overwhelmingly to read something in printed form rather than online or on a small Kindle/iPod-like screen. That’s a bad solution in search of a problem.

    And I’ve never once in 17 years dealt with a soggy newspaper. Maybe I’ve just been lucky and haven’t had to deal with sadistic delivery boys but if there is even a hint of moisture in the air it gets sealed in a recyclable plastic wrap. The Times uses soy inks and (mostly) recycled paper. It’s not ideal but it’s still worth the $20 per month I pay. I spend far more than that on coffee in a month.

  3. Kirk says:

    Tom:

    Unfortunately I don’t think there’s an easy answer to your question. Those web-based products and features you mention might help a bit, but the newspaper business is in such bad shape that most are in need of immediate results. This is something papers should have been working on a decade ago. The sad state of the newspaper business in America today is the result of a decade of denial on the part of the people running the papers.

    Also, I fear that many of the moves that are being made to “save” newspapers will have the opposite effect (no thank to Sam Zell and others like him).

    As newspapers begin to fail outright I expect we’ll hear people begin talking about papers as a form of public media. In the future I envision a scenario where the local newspaper is something like the local public radio station. We’ll donate money to support the print and online efforts of local journalists out of a sense of civic responsibility (the very reason I kept my print subscription active for so long).

    That’s one scenario at least. Needless to say, I’m not optimistic.

  4. Kirk says:

    Tyson:

    Here’s something I never thought I would say to you: You may be too old to understand what I’m talking about.

    If print editions of newspapers survive much beyond the next decade you can bet that most of the deliveries will be made to old folks homes.

    Further, they haven’t used “delivery boys” for over a decade. They are now known as “delivery personnel”. And sometimes their protective baggies leak, allowing water to seep in and soak the paper. Actually, in my experience that happened quite a lot.

  5. Tyson says:

    Ha! True story: So our paper is delivered at 2:00 a.m. every morning by an old man in an even more decrepit pickup truck. Well, this guy (who of course doesn’t speak English) is stone deaf and used to leave the radio on in his car with the doors open so that he could hear it while delivering all the papers in the neighborhood. I had to go outside and get in his car and turn his radio off a few weeks ago and then accost him about it in Spanish. Of course my Spanish is very rusty when I’m that bleary-eyed so I think I left an old man wondering why a young shirtless guy is wandering around at such an ungodly hour screaming about the Olympics.

    But getting back to the point I hear talk that we might see a huge consolidation into just a handful of nationwide newspapers, maybe like “The Western Times” with a small daily supplement for local news & issues. I look at something like the Fresno Bee. Almost all of it is AP and Reuters stuff anyway. Why shouldn’t they move in this direction?

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  1. […] Can the Kindle Save the L.A. Times: At one point I actually had some hope that eReading devices like Kindle might be a partial solution to the problems facing the newspaper business in America. After reading the L.A. Times on the Kindle for a few months, I’m not so sure about that. Posted by Kirk Filed in Publishing Leave a Reply […]