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Nick R. Martin

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Why NYT text messages don't work
By Nick R. Martin | January 25, 2008

The New York Times launched a service today that sends text messages with the latest headlines from its various sections and columnists to your cell phone. Here's the thing: It doesn't work.

First, let me say I'm glad the Times is experimenting with this kind of technology. The technical folks in journalism figured out long ago how to make news websites available for any cell phone that has internet access. They dealt with the challenge cell phones present: small screens and limited buttons. They made news available to anybody with the time and money to surf on their cell.

But what most news outlets still haven't figured out is how to get the news to those of us who have cell phones, but can't pay the high cost of accessing the web by phone. (My current plan allows me to access it for the outrageous fee of $5 a month plus air time, too much for a poor journalist to pay.) The Times is trying to solve that problem. A press release from the company says the new service is available for "any type of cell phone or PDA." It quotes NYTimes.com vice president Rob Larson as saying it's meant to make the "quality news and information" of the paper available to readers "wherever they may be." And get this: for free.

The service is pretty similar to one that Google has all but perfected for getting movie times, driving directions, addresses, even dictionary definitions on the go. With the Times service, you send a text message with a keyword, depending on the stories you want to read, to a special six-digit number set up by the Times (698-698 for NYTNYT). Let's say you want the latest headlines from the Times' website. Send a text with the word "latest." If you want Nicholas Kristof's latest column, send "Kristof." It's pretty easy. Seconds later, you'll receive a few texts in return, each with its own headline, and each with the option of reading the story.

Here's where the trouble starts. In my test, I asked to be sent the latest headlines. I first received three, but had the option of being sent a couple more by replying with the letter "m". Two more came when I did that. So now I had five different texts, each with a headline: one about the economy, one about a bombing in Mosul, one about John Edwards, and a couple others. I bit on the politics headline, "Edwards Criticizes Opponents in South Carolina." It was the fourth text I received, and so, to read the story, it asked me to reply to the text with simply the number "4" in the message. Here's what I got in return:

NYT: John Edwards told voters on the day before the primary in South Carolina that he is the only candidate who will re...
More: http://s.nyt.com/s/HE79e7
No joke. That's what the message said, ellipses, web address and all. It gave me no useful information, really. The full story, should you go to the website and find it, says Edwards told voters in S.C., he's the only one "who will represent their interests in the White House." Wouldn't that have been nice to know in the text message?

The problem is obvious. The Times ran out of room. With only 160 characters to work with in a typical text, it may be impossible to get the news, context and insight readers of the Times expect squeezed into a single text message. The Times needs to recognize the limitations of the text message. The headlines work. And those alone, if written well, can provide information and drive people to the website to get the full story. CNN has been doing this for years with text alerts. Through my carrier, I can sign up for free breaking news text alerts from CNN. I've been using the service for years. CNN only sends out a message when the news is really big, like John McCain winning the Republican South Carolina primary, or the news I received this week:

CNN BREAKING Actor Heath Ledger has been found dead in a Manhattan apartment, New York police tell CNN.
It's short, and it gives me the news. It's a little tabloidish, but what do I care? If I want to know more, I can obviously tune into CNN or go to its website. Or I can read the story on the front page of the New York Times the next day. CNN is a company that already understands the limitations, as well as the potential of a text message. Hopefully the Times can adapt to do the same.


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