Washington Post iPhone app panned by gutsy WaPo technology writer: Symptom of worse woes?

Update, March 19: Hooray! The Post app in its current form now lets you change type size more gracefully. Tap the screen while reading a story and you’ll see the options. – D.R.

imageSeymour Solomon, the real estate magnate in my D.C. newspaper novel, is among the Washington Telegram’s biggest advertisers and pals around with both the publisher and the top editor.

But that doesn’t stop Jon Stone, the reporter in The Solomon Scandals, from investigating Sy’s Kong-sized political donations and federal office leases.

At the real-life Washington Post—not to be confused with my imaginary daily—who’s the equivalent of the intrepid Stone?

002I nominate Rob Pegoraro (photo), the Faster Forward tech columnist. On consumer issues, Rob never seems to flinch, and yesterday he panned the Post’s new app for reading the paper on the iPhone, iPod Touch and the iPad. Even with the app selling for just $1.99 for a year of use, he is telling his Post readers to “save your money for now.”

Rob—I met him a few years ago when he was checking out an early version of the One Laptop Per Child computer—is once again right. In overall aesthetics and usability, the New York Times reader for the iPhone shreds the Post app, which is just one more example of the L Street’s online woes. If the Post is still into “Creative Tension,” why not take it beyond the traditional newsroom? As a rule I prefer a gentle, friendly, nurturing management in the Theory Y style. But on presentation issues, the Post’s Net operation is really that bad. Time for some firings, even?

For example, at least as far as I know, the pathetic WaPo reader wouldn’t let me enlarge the “type” and then have the words flow into place on my Touch, so the app didn’t chop off the starts and ends of lines. By contrast, the Times reader has a nice, conspicuous plus sign you can tap to make the words more readable without having to scroll back and forth.

This is no triviality for people without 20ish eyes. How could the Post have omitted such a “must,” even from a first release? Not every iPhone owner is young. Let’s hope WaPo issues a speedy update, in line with the possibilities suggested by Rob’s “for now.”

In a related vein, I’ve got a friendly little suggestion for Donald Graham and Katharine Weymouth. When it comes to your high-tech offerings, please sample the chow yourself before asking the dogs to eat the dog food. Don’t just think, “Who cares, I’m too old to worry about this stuff.” Graham is in his 60s, and if his eyes are good enough for the WaPo iPod app, then he’s faring a lot better than others in his age group. I assume he at least gave the iPhone app a try. But just how much time did he spend with it, anyway? Same for the much-younger Katharine Weymouth?

If this pathetic app is the best the Post and its partner Crisp Wireless can do, then maybe the paper needs to piggyback on app development at the New York Time or work with the Associated Press and its contractors. A Post journalist, Walter Pincus, once suggested that the Post join up with the New York Times on a Web site, as I recall. The newsroom ego factor, alas, probably renders that impossible. But joint app development with the Times might not be such a bad idea, given the Post’s mediocre track record in the area of online presentation.

These-here usability matters seem beyond the WaPo geniuses. Don’t you love the navigation bar at the top of the regular Post Web site—the one where you have to position the cursor just right to get to the section you want? By contrast, the New York Times has a nice, easily-to-use menu area to the left. You don’t have to be whiz at video games to use it comfortably.

imageAt the Washington Post, the online mess has resulted as much from a mix of personnel and organizational issues as it has from technical ones. For some reason, Graham and Weymouth have been just too damn trusting of the tech side, which I think is long overdue for a shakeup—with perhaps the replacement of some of the present crew with a more reader-friendly bunch. The horrid Web app is just the latest flop. Another was LoudonCountyextra.com, which failed to make full use of the many-to-many capabilities of the Web and was a joint failure on both the tech and editorial sides.

image I don’t care if such-and-such brain worked for Amazon or arrived at the Post after LoudonCountyextra.com. When it comes to the Web usability, the Post isn’t working. Granted, WashingtonPost.com is among the planet’s most popular newspaper sites on the Web. But that’s because of its strength in political reporting and the Watergate mystique, as opposed to Web presentation. For now, as shown by the above chart from the Alexa Web analytics service, the Post site badly lags the New York Times. If I were Warren Buffett or another major shareholder, I’d threaten to whittle down my investment if the Post didn’t shape up its Web presentation. For a speck of the annual budget of the Post, L Street could order a redesign and boost traffic despite the better-funded competition from NYC. Enough smugness; enough pampering of the tech crew, or at least the Web and app design people and/or those supervising them!

Know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some in-house hatred of the Post’s Web presentation, and rationally or not, this may well be one reason why the Net operation unfortunately lost its independent to the main newsroom. The iPhone app just complicates matters. I’m amazed that it’s drawn even three of five stars so far from App Store customers (14). At best, this botch is only a two.

The good news: The Post’s Kindle service from Amazon works out better for people with aging eyes. Trouble is, it’s like the iPhone one in a negative way—it doesn’t include the whole paper. What’s more, due to the Kindle’s limitations, the photos aren’t in color, and some people may dislike the low contrast between text and background, currently a generic failing of E Ink machines.

A detail: My screenshot of the Post app is actually charitable. As a whole, the app looks worse.

Disclosure: I don’t own any Post stock, but for retirement purposes own a tiny speck of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which of course has zillions of investments beyond the Washington Post Company. Berkshire Hathaway’s Web site lacks all the trimmings of L Street’s. But it is infinitely more usable, and I suspect that Jakob Nielsen would vastly prefer it to the Post’s.

For iPhone owners following the Scandals Web site: Trying to walk the walk, I’ve set up this Scandals blog so it displays well on the iPhone, iPod Touch and, I’d hope, the iPad. Give it a try on your cellphone or other handheld—not just your desktop—if you haven’t already. Feedback welcome! Use the site’s comment capability or email me: I’m hardly infallible and am trying to be more open to suggestions than the Post apparently has been. Yes, I’m also interested in the site displaying well on Android phones and other Apple rivals (I’m still trying out WordPress plug-ins with more than iPhone-optimization capabilities).

Related: ‘What Would Google Do’ with my old steeltown newspaper in Lorain, Ohio? Here’s what I’D do.

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David Rothman

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