The Los Angeles Times has a limited-time offer for unlimited digital access across web, tablet, and mobile, for just $1 for 4 weeks. After that, you’re billed $4 per week, billed every 4 weeks ($16 a month), and you can cancel anytime. As a millennial, the thought of paying for news was foreign to me. Even though I grew up in the era of print newspapers and magazines, when the internet arrived, it seemed ridiculous to pay for news when it was abundantly available for free everywhere!
Flash forward to 2020: a pandemic is sweeping the globe, our president is telling us to consume bleach, the economy’s shit, and natural disasters are wreaking havoc all over the world. Everything’s on fire, basically. Unfortunately, these conditions have made fake news ripe for consuming and spreading, especially on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. It became increasingly hard for me to find accurate information, and I got tired of hitting paywalls on the sources I DID trust, so I decided to put my money where my mouth is and subscribe to the L.A. Times, a paper I’ve grown up with my entire life, as someone born and raised in Los Angeles, and it feels like home.
After spending a few weeks playing around with the app, I think I have a good grasp on the functionality and value it delivers. So here’s a breakdown of the features, some commentary on what I loved most, as well as feedback (from the perspective of someone in media who works on apps) on what would add even more value to subscribers. For those who want to know, I’m using a Samsung Galaxy S7 edge and I’m running Android 8.0.0 and Samsung Experience version 9.0.
The app is broken up into four major navigational sections:
- Homepage Feed
- eNewspaper (a digitized version of the print newspaper)
- Media (a collection of videos and podcasts)
- My library (saved and recently viewed articles)
The homepage feed includes a collection of top news however, the criteria for what is considered “top news” is unclear to me. I’m assuming it’s their most viewed or most engaged with stories of the day? Either way, most of the reading I do is directly from that homepage feed so those stories do tend to be the most relevant and engaging reporting available at the current moment.
This sounds like exactly what it is, an eNewspaper! But this is more than a scanned version of the print paper, it’s completely clickable and customizable to each reader’s preferences. This format allows you to flip the pages of the paper which gives you a different scrolling experience that’s equivalent to sitting back and flipping through the newspaper. I’m still old enough to remember the joys of getting lost in the paper. Admiring the beautiful photography, discovering the buried stories, jumping from story to unrelated story. Except in this experience, when you click on a story it brings up an easy-to read version of the story that allows you to change the language, adjust the font size, and highlight text to copy, eliminating the need to pinch to zoom as you squint to read the writing.
The value and experience is further enhanced with the addition of games and comics. Games include Sudoku, solitaire, and word games, but the shining jewel in this crown is the daily crossword. Oh, how I miss filling out the daily crossword in the print paper! I never got great at doing crosswords but I loved trying. This version has everything you need for a good time, including customizable clues, the ability to play with friends, error check, and a deep archive to play with! The comics are cool because you can read them in the newspaper format, or click on them for an easy-to-read hi-res version. Hands down, the enewspaper is one of the most unique and best parts of the L.A. Times app.
There’s also a cool archives feature that dates back 130+ years and includes other newspapers. Unfortunately, it seems like you have to have a separate subscription to access this section. It’s too bad because making this a part of the subscription would definitely add value and attract a broader range of potential subscribers such as teachers, historians, researchers, and other individuals interested in news archives. I’ve contacted the L.A. Times directly to ask about this since it’s unclear if the lack of access is due to a bug or really requires another subscription.
This is the section I’ve probably spent the least amount of time in. Not because the L.A. Times doesn’t make good video/audio content, but because I tend to consume that type of content at other times and on other platforms. If I’m opening up the L.A. Times app, it’s because I’m in the mood to read, not watch/listen to content. And when someone DOES share L.A. Times video on social media, they’re YouTube links, so I go consume the content there. Even the videos in the app appear to be YouTube embeds.
Same with the podcasts, I was a huge Dirty John fan, but I didn’t listen to this podcast on the L.A. Times app because it’s on Spotify, which is my go-to subscription for all things music and podcasts. It’s highly unlikely I would listen to a podcast from within the L.A. Times app unless it was EXCLUSIVE to the app. But I know that, in today’s media landscape, you have to spread your content across all monetizable platforms to get as much revenue out of it, so I get it.
Room for Improvement
Although I love the app, as someone who works with app developers and is regularly reading about, talking about, and playing with various types of apps, I thought there were a few UI/UX changes that could be made that would enhance the experience overall:
- Option to mark as read – This is a feature you’ll find on most news aggregator sites/apps like Feedly. As someone that consumes a bunch of articles, I HATE seeing an article I already read over and over in my feed. Some people don’t like their articles to automatically be marked as read, which is why giving people the option would be great.
- Clickable writer bios at the end of articles – This is a major missed opportunity! I follow so many L.A. Times journalists and employees on Twitter, and it’s their writing, personalities, and engagement that keep me reading. If you don’t want to send people off-platform, you can have each journalist create an author page you can link to but where they can also list their social media and other articles. These keep me reading which is also additional ad revenue, win-win!
- Better placement of share buttons – The share buttons are at the top of the article but they should also be at the bottom of the article! It doesn’t make sense that I should have to scroll all the way up to find share buttons. If this is too onerous, a link to jump to the top of the page would suffice. As of now, the “hack” is to exit the article and go back in so that you’re at the top. Such a little thing but makes a difference.
- Links that open up in the app when I’m on mobile – Sometimes, when I’m on Twitter and I click on the article, it takes me to the website to read it there. There are ways to create smart links that recognize when someone’s on a mobile device so that it opens the app instead of the browser and would make for a much better user experience on mobile.
- Photo-dominant articles should go into gallery mode when you click a picture – The L.A. Times has some of the best photojournalists working for them and they publish these awesome photo galleries from time to time, but the navigation is clunky. I have to click on each individual picture to view it in gallery mode. Instead, I should be able to click on one picture and be launched into gallery mode where I can scroll through all the photos in the gallery at once. A time-saver!
- Better push notifications – You have the ability to customize your push notifications based on the following categories: Breaking News, Editors’ Picks, Local, Politics, Business, Opinion, Entertainment, and Sports. But the criteria beyond that is unclear. For example, I selected the “Breaking News” category and it’s all over the place. Gavin Newsom updating us on California re-opening is breaking news to me, but Lori Laughlin getting sentenced is not, but I got a push notification for both. Perhaps some human curation here would be nice.
- Improved navigation – It took me a second to realize that there are two navigation bars in the app: the main nav bar and the one within the eNewspaper section. When I first made it into the crossword section, I couldn’t figure out how to get back into it, the option had seemingly disappeared from the nav bar, but after clicking around a bit I realized I could only get to it from the eNewspaper section. If this wasn’t obvious to me, a digital native, it’ll be really confusing for an older user that’s not tech-savvy.
- Customization of homepage feed – I wish I could customize my feed to include the sections of the paper I care about the most, as well as the option to follow specific journalists/columns/features that I enjoy.
- Livestreaming – The media section could be largely improved by adding livestreaming (in the vein of ABC news) and human curation, based on current events and trending topics. Additionally, having a linear-style, always-on, feed would likely boost drive-by viewership. Although I wouldn’t come to the app looking for video, if I clicked on that tab and something engaging was playing, I’d probably stop and watch. I noticed an announcement recently on Instagram regarding the new L.A. Times EventStream which is described as “exclusive streaming events plus panels, cooking demos and Q&As with authors, professors, journalists, chefs and more.” I left a comment on the post asking if this would also be in the app (which would be great!) but never received a response.
Overall, the L.A. Times Unlimited Digital subscription delivers on all fronts: value, accessibility, quality journalism, and price. But whether new subscribers become long-term paying customers will be determined by how crucial the subscription is to consumers on a daily basis.
Personally, I’d like to keep the subscription, and plan to for the foreseeable future, but this might change. We’re all dealing with the unpredictable aftermath of COVID-19, and as future income becomes more and more uncertain for some of us, luxuries like this are often the first to go. I just dumped my Netflix and HBO NOW subscriptions, but I’m definitely keeping Hulu and Spotify because I use those services several times DAILY. If I haven’t created the habits that keep me checking into the app daily, then it’s more than likely I’ll dump it at some point.
But more than anything, I signed up for a subscription because I wanted to do my part to support local journalism. That’s why it’s disappointing to hear that L.A. Times staff are still getting laid off and/or getting their hours reduced. But I get it, there still hasn’t been a large adoption of the subscription and ad revenue appears to still be a huge driving force of revenue.
I wish someone smarter than myself over there would look into micro-transactions. Over the years, I’ve given King, the makers of Candy Crush hundreds, maybe thousands (I’m too scared to tally it up), of dollars because their in-game purchases are cheap, like $5. Similarly, subscribing to an ongoing thing can be too much of a commitment for someone on a budget, but they would probably happily pay for a $2 article if they knew this was directly contributing to that journalist remaining employed. Not only that, but if certain journalists are driving engagement on social media, and they have high viewership on their articles, you should bonus them! They’re not paid to do all that engagement on Twitter, they do it for free because they believe in their stories and community, they should be rewarded for driving views and revenue.
Lastly, if you’re on the fence, I’d say just sign up for the trial and see how it fits in your life. Worst case scenario, you cancel it at some point later down the line, but at least you’ve done something. For some Angelenos (you know who you are) money isn’t an issue, and if you’re one of these people you should ABSOLUTELY sign up for a subscription. I have a fondness for this paper and the people that are a part of it. From a personal perspective, as a Latina from South Central Los Angeles, nobody out there is covering my community the way the L.A. Times is, we’re largely invisible everywhere else, and the fact that they have specific journalists covering this beat means that someone is dedicated to making sure those voices are heard. That’s worth $16 a month, don’t you think?