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My New York Times? Not quite.

The NYT just rolled out a beta of some­thing they're call­ing MyTimes. As a dai­ly read­er of both the print and online edi­tions, I'm intrigued by new devel­op­ments and ideas at the NYT, and I've been pleased with their recent site redesign. MyTimes, how­ev­er, strikes me as some­what misguided.First off, the name MyTimes sounds like a por­tal, recall­ing the con­fused era when every com­pa­ny want­ed to make a my-pre­fixed ver­sion of their site. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it also evokes the sub­se­quent real­iza­tion that what peo­ple real­ly want­ed was not con­trol over lay­out and con­tent, but greater sys­tem intel­li­gence — smarter defaults, recog­ni­tion of the things they nor­mal­ly do, a clever way of point­ing them toward relat­ed things. The por­tal-sound­ing name wouldn't even be so bad if MyTimes didn't look and act like por­tal. Alas, it's got all sorts of crap to add and move around and mod­i­fy, allow­ing the read­er to add RSS feeds from any­where on the web, view movie times, weath­er, Flickr images, what­ev­er. To me, the prob­lem is that the NYT isn't "what­ev­er." It's the author­i­ta­tive source. So why all the oth­er stuff?A bet­ter ques­tion: What prob­lem is MyTimes sup­posed to be solv­ing? What is the user goal is it address­ing? One would do research to answer these ques­tions, but — to be self-ref­er­en­tial — my own goals in read­ing the NYT: Get the author­i­ta­tive answer, enjoy great writ­ing, forum­late opin­ions on com­plex prob­lems. A major prob­lem of MyTimes is that the NYT is try­ing to be both the author­i­ta­tive source, and the deliv­ery mech­a­nism of any oth­er source you might want.So, my advice to the New York Times …

  • Bring relat­ed infor­ma­tion to me. Focus my atten­tion to the news of the day, but make it easy to nav­i­gate to relat­ed things. These things may be with­in the NYT, or out­side. Use what you know about me — from observ­ing my behav­ior — to point me toward relat­ed things. Think Ama­zon, not Google Home­page or MySpace. Ama­zon remem­bers what you like, points you toward relat­ed stuff, tells you what oth­er peo­ple have looked at, etc. It knows you; you don't HAVE to tell it any­thing.
  • Don't cre­ate a sep­a­rate place that requires con­fig­u­ra­tion and expect that I will go there and wait for the infor­ma­tion to start rolling in. The estab­lished frame­work works: Start at the home­page, drill to the detail. Why cre­ate anoth­er start­ing place?
  • Inte­grate the good things from MyTimes — the jour­nal­ist pages, for instance, are a cool idea, and they are most appro­pri­ate­ly accessed with­in the exist­ing frame­work. Local­ized con­tent like weath­er and movie list­ings are fine, but I don't under­stand why this needs to be sep­a­rate from the exist­ing frame­work of the NYT pages. Basi­cal­ly: Inte­grate the read­er into the NYT, don't cre­ate a sep­a­rate place for him/her. Learn my zip code, remem­ber it, push rel­e­vant local con­tent to me. End of sto­ry. (And just because Flickr has an RSS feed doesn't mean it's wor­thy of your brand. You're the New York Times! You've got the best pho­to­jour­nal­ists in the world! Get rid of it!)

While I'm on the sub­ject, two addi­tion­al things I'd like to see …

  • More expo­sure to the Times' excel­lent archival jour­nal­ism. Why not plumb the back cat­a­log, and expose some of it to the read­ers? Many arti­cles about cur­rent events refer to past events. Why not pro­vide a list of relat­ed links to pre­vi­ous arti­cles more often? Of course, I'd expect that this con­tent would be free — not only because I'm a cheap­skate — but because I would think it would pique people's inter­est in see­ing more of it, which would of course cost mon­ey.
  • More jour­nal­ist blogs and dis­cus­sion. The Pub­lic Editor's col­umn has become one of my favorite parts of the paper, and he blogs about inter­est­ing jour­nal­is­tic issues as well.Here's a great one about Nicholas Lemann's arti­cle about cit­i­zen jour­nal­ism in the New York­er.

In any case, there are rough­ly one thou­sand web sites offer­ing up cus­tomiz­able info wid­gets, web-wide RSS feed aggre­ga­tion, and so forth. The NYT should con­tin­ue to focus on the con­tent, and leave the aggre­ga­tion to some­one else.