They’ve been coding like crazy at the Star Tribune. In the past few months, the “newspaper” has released a well-received website remake and updated its solid mobile site. Sometime Sunday, the Strib will unleash its next digital product: an iPad app.
I’ve been playing with it for a few days, and while there are a few user-interface shortcomings, it’s a nice product that will be familiar to New York Times and Wall Street Journal app users.
Before I dig into the details, a word about price. It’s free for the next couple of months. However, sometime this fall, the Strib will limit it to those with “a subscriber relationship,” as digital V.P. Jim Bernard puts it.
This is about the time the Strib will begin “metering” its website — restricting how often non-subscribers can view certain types of stories. The Strib’s plans aren’t finalized, but like the Times, newsprint subscribers will get the apps and sites at no extra change. Those without birdcages can purchase a digital-only subscription.
Like its website, the Strib iPad app is “hand-curated” — people, not algorithms, select stories. The Strib’s website is updated every 5-10 minutes during waking hours; the app will be refreshed less, Bernard says, but the newsroom knows it cannot look static. Breaking news will determine actual frequency.
The app will skew toward deeper reads, something the iPad is optimized for. You won’t see everything from your morning paper (in fact, the Strib killed an e-edition app to avoid iTunes Store confusion), but what isn’t there will be mostly short news bits.
If you haven’t looked at the app for the past hour, it opens with a rotating full-screen “splash” photo, a vivid illustration of how iPad visuals pop.
The home page (above) will look most familiar to anyone with the Wall Street Journal — three featured stories, and a rolling sidebar of inside headlines.
Personally, I prefer the New York Times approach — instead of a list, you swipe the page and more story teases show up in squarish modules. This allows a little more descriptive text to get you interested in the story. The virtue of the Strib’s choice: a section’s headlines on a single page.
Story pages include clickable photos and video; again, very familiar to news app users, and very convenient.
However, full-screen picture impact is marred by how the Strib handles captions: They sit in squarish, surprisingly obtrusive lower-left boxes. You can tap the screen to make the words go away (and subsequently swipe through uncaptioned images), but a better system would keep text out of the image field.
Again, I’d take the Times approach: shrink the photos slightly, put the words below. I’d make the tap enlarge the images and knock the words off the screen.
As for story text, there’s a nice amount of reader-friendly whitespace. To my unscientific eye, it looks as big (or nearly so) as the print version. Unfortunately, the Strib app does not allow you to increase the font size. Your audience isn’t getting any younger, folks.
As in other news apps, ads can take up as much as a third of the screen, and full-pagers appear if you swipe through enough stories.
If the ads are designed well, they do not detract from the reading experience. (I pretty much saw “Tree of Life” because of the interesting Times app ads.) However, if they are done garishly — and I’m looking at your bright orange-and-yellow color scheme, Blue Cross Minnesota — the iPad’s visual-boosting turns cruel.
Here, I should probably confess I am not an avid user of single-outlet news apps. I prefer an app called Reeder, which gathers RSS feeds (basically, headlines) from multiple sites. Reeder spits out clean text, sans ads and visual detritus, via a program called Readability.
Using Reeder is a shots-fired move; Readability strips the very ads that keep these orgs paying journalists. (You can buy a Readability membership that funnels 70 percent to publishers, but most users won’t.) Still, if sites are going to scrape your eyes with assaultive design, any defense is appropriate. The iPad potentially represents a compromise — clean and unclutttered design where stories and ads can coexist — but only if the emphasis is firmly toward the reader.
One nice thing the Strib does is put a “sections” button at top right — I was happy to have this feature, which the Times omits. You can also go back to a section front via a bottom menu bar that pops up.
However, sharing is lousy — you can only send a story via email. At least it’s not fax! The Times app enables Twitter and Facebook. Bernard promises better sharing at the top of the update list.
Finally, for the few of us who did enjoy reading the Strib’s print layout via the e-edition app, Bernard says his vendor is coding an HTML5 version that will be Safari-viewable this fall. (Currently, the web-viewable e-edition is in Flash, which Steve Jobs hates and made iPad-unviewable.)