Katherine Boehret

Custom Magazine Focuses on the Big Pictures

When you’re hungry for online news, where do you go for a personalized fix? There’s the friend who constantly posts the funniest stories on Facebook before everyone else, or the colleague who shares smart articles on Twitter the second they’re published online. You might even use an app that sorts through online news stories to find exactly what you’ll want to read.

One of the coolest apps out there is Zite, which assembles stories into a personalized digital magazine and simplifies the process of consuming a lot of information in a short time. Since its debut nearly two years ago, I’ve opened Zite’s free app on my iPad nearly every morning. (It also runs on Android and Windows Phone 7.) It displays loads of interesting material on all sorts of topics, and it knows what I like to read because it has tracked my reading habits since the first article I read on Zite.

Starting Tuesday, a new edition of Zite is available for download, updating the existing app on Apple’s iOS 6. (An update for other devices is coming next year.) I’ve been using this new version for the past couple of weeks with a focus on the iPad app. While I like some of its new features, such as a box for current headline news, it tries to do too much without enough focus.

The new Zite puts a lot of emphasis on visuals, forcing people to swipe to new screens to see more stories. Instead of seeing five articles (with headlines, photos and a few sentences per story) in neat squares on the first page of Zite, you’ll now see just three articles. One story includes an extra-large image that swallows up a lot of space and isn’t always clearly distinguished from the rest of the page. Other pages are shown in a layout meant to mimic a glossy magazine, but can come off looking haphazard and too busy.

If these images offered some sort of insightful visual, I might be more accepting of them. But in many cases, the photos don’t show their actual subject. An article about TV personality Alton Brown showed just his pant leg and hand, while a story about a new tech company showed a large black square with a small sliver of someone’s face. Some headlines showed up cut off in mid-sentence.

Zite’s CEO, Mark Johnson, says the app’s algorithm sometimes highlights the wrong part of a photo, and font and software glitches caused the headline issues. He says the company plans to fix both of these problems in an update to the new version, which is expected next month.

So what does this new Zite app do that the old one didn’t? People can now tell Zite if they like articles without opening them by dragging the article up (for thumbs up) or down (for thumbs down). They can see articles that are most popular with other Zite users and can read a stream of Headline News, two features I wondered about while using the original Zite.

image

A screenshot from the Zite app

A “Featured on Zite” section promotes sponsored pages, like Avant-Garde Design sponsored by Lexus, and other news sources, like the Los Angeles Times.

Readers can now jump from one general article to a Zite page filled with articles on a specific topic mentioned in the article by selecting a topic tag. And an Explore page makes it easy to find more articles by linking Twitter, Facebook, Pocket or Google Reader, or checking out staff picks and popular categories.

Instead of 2,500 categories, Zite now offers 40,000. And the app’s green-and-white app icon has been replaced with a cartoony owl, which the CEO says represents intelligence, curiosity and approachability.

The original Zite used clever animation each time you opened it, swinging images around like they were on a string and neatly displaying them alongside their related articles. Now, the app just opens and articles are shown bumping into each other, like colliding puzzle pieces.

Zite still buries bylines until you open an article, which is frustrating for people like me who might read a story because of the reporter.

Several of the new Zite features give the company more feedback about what users do or don’t like. But the original app was built around the premise that you could do nothing to it and it would steadily improve as you used it. Its algorithm always monitored your every move, including which articles you opened, how long you spent reading an article, if you scrolled down or not and if you gave it a thumbs up or thumbs down. This new version puts ranking in a more prominent spot and makes Zite’s analyzing job easier.

In addition to moving an article up or down to indicate whether or not it’s well-liked, people can select a heart to see more stories on a certain topic. But this doesn’t add the topic to a user’s Quicklist, which is a selection of categories and news sources that someone chooses when first setting up the app.

By letting people dive deeper into specific topics, Zite encourages more discovery, but this blend of topic tags, Quicklist and liking a topic could be confusing.

Finding new categories and stories is easier with this new version of Zite, but maneuvering around the app’s overall layout is not. Its original design encouraged quick reading of a lot of information curated just for you, while this new layout forces you to do a lot of swiping, like with a glossy magazine, until you find what you want to read.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com.


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