The Star Tribune’s new iPad app: a review

The Star Tribune iPad app home page
The Star Tribune iPad app home page

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.

A full-screen Strib photo, with caption
A full-screen Strib photo, with caption

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.

A Strib story page
A Strib story page

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.)

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/06/2011 - 06:28 am.

    It’s hard to imagine metering the Star Tribune. It’s not a website I go to for news.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/06/2011 - 09:06 am.

    For me, the Star Tribune website is not a destination news site. Unlike the New York Times website, which I check frequently, and some would say, obsessively, I never got to the Strib site just to find out what’s up. I might go to it for an update on a news story, but usually when I do, it’s because of a link created in twitter. For the New York Times, a website worth paying for, such links are free, they go around the pay wall. Would that be true for the Star Tribune as well? If not, is the Star Tribune website ever going to be comparable and competitive with the New York Times, which gives away a lot of the same material for free?

    I firmly believe that only one or two news sources in the world will have the ability to successfully charge for access to their content. No local newspaper anywhere will ever have that ability.

  3. Submitted by Mark Stromseth on 08/06/2011 - 11:21 am.

    Although the recent redesign of the web site was needed, it falls far short of what it should have been.

    Links to “full stories” aren’t; you have to click another link in the story to read the whole thing in one page.

    Comments still lack the HTML styling they used to have and sorely need to differentiate between quoted text and the comment. Breaks between paragraphs should be the default behavior when you press Enter or Return on your keyboard. Instead, we get no breaks, so everything is run together.

    They certainly don’t do that in the newspaper itself, and they don’t print Letters to the Editor that way, either. Is it too much to expect common sense and consistency when formatting text?

    Threading of comments should have been included with the redesign so readers can follow a particular comment and responses to it.

    Stories still lack actual headlines and sub-heads; all text is the same, and spacing between paragraphs can be erratic or non-existent, which makes reading stories difficult.

    Is it too much for the Star Tribune to look to others outside their own cloistered environment for advice on design? I know they had at least one outsider advising them, but they seem to have ignored most of his advice, even though they weren’t paying him.

    Look what it got them: not much!

  4. Submitted by Chuck Holst on 08/06/2011 - 02:18 pm.

    Speaking of coding for HTML5 and Safari, I wish could be read using Internet Explorer 9. Currently I have to switch to Firefox to read it. The Strib site looks the same on both browsers.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/07/2011 - 08:17 am.

    For me, definitely an old fogy, website design doesn’t matter much as long as it doesn’t get in the way. The Times website is often for poor and old fashioned design, but it serves me well enough. The Star Tribune website has always been something of a mess, but when I go there I usually find a way of getting to where I want to go.

    It will be interesting to see whether better design will be a more significant factor for attracting younger, more computer literate readers. Computers can do a lot more than paper oriented folks like me ever think to ask of them.

  6. Submitted by John Ferman on 08/07/2011 - 04:05 pm.

    I just downladed it and took a quick look at the Sunday edition. Under the sections button there were no ‘Travel’ or ‘Homes’ sections. I rather expected the app version would mirror the printed edition.
    My big question is the app is free to printed version subscribers, but our family subscription is in my wife’s name. So am I out of luck after the introductory period ends?

  7. Submitted by John Ferman on 08/07/2011 - 04:12 pm.

    This is my second reply. There should be an Index to stories in the issue presented – with a very short word bite on content. Also there should be a search capability. I have sometimes come across a snippet in some story that might be of interest to a friend far away. How nice if those snippets could be captured and emailed to a friend.

  8. Submitted by David Stovall on 08/10/2011 - 12:13 pm.

    No comics!!

    Since I travel a lot I found the replica print e-Edition gave me more of a sense of home. The new app seems to be nothing more than a re-packaged web site edition which I already had access to on the iPad. What is missing is the editorial placement and the minutia. Was that article front page or page 8?

    The West Extra was missing today which is a major reason for wanting to read a local newspaper vs a more national source.

    The print ads from the replica e-Edition gave more of a sense of local.

    I understand they are re-writing the web based browser print e-Edition to work on the iPad but I found the app based e-Edition to be formatted better and easier to read. If that change was Apple’s doing, I wonder if Apple realizes they just destroyed one of their major advantages of having an iPad? With the new Lion OS and the new MacBook Airs out I am rethinking my next purchase.

  9. Submitted by Stan Daniels on 08/10/2011 - 05:39 pm.

    The iPad version is pretty weak so far. Content is old and as others have noted, many parts of the paper are missing.

    The concept works well for USA Today, but the Strib seemed to miss the point. This isn’t an iPad issue, it’s how the Strib publishes information to the iPad.

    The splash screen is silly and the BCBS ad annoying especially if you click it by mistake.

    I’ll also say I like their redesigned website, but the content isn’t as current as others. No way I would pay for it.

  10. Submitted by David Stovall on 08/12/2011 - 09:49 am.

    I hope the Star Tribune is monitoring this.

    One thing missing about e-Edition apps is they show the publish date but do not indicate which print issue the article appeared in. I would like that little bit of information.

    MinnPost, BTW, would be a better fit than print newspapers as an app on the iPad.

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