Readability: a tool for surviving reading online

Readability : An Arc90 Lab Experiment from Arc90 on Vimeo.

I have lived in a world without print media, and it is horrible. Until a couple of weeks ago, when I found a source for cheap issues of Newsweek International in Nanjing, my news diet has been entirely digital. Armed with Newsweek, and a shipment of magazines (Time, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, New Yorker, among others) from a visiting friend made me realize again how much the switch to digital reading has affected news consumption. If my experience is any indication of the future of newspapers and magazines, I’m frightened for our collective sanity and eyes. Readability has saved my life, or at least, made reading online a lot less awful. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still bad, but the news has once again become…well…readable.

I’ve been reading the news online for most of the time that I’ve been aware of the news. In fact, I don’t think I really remember a time when I’ve read the news when most news wasn’t available online, generally for free. The change from print to digital has ruined my reading habits. First, without a ready supply of print media, I’m without the news over breakfast, in the subway or bus, waiting in a doctor’s office, in a park, during a lull between assignments, nodding off at bedtime…. A raggedy looking, folded up periodical has been a constant companion. Moving to China a couple years ago, though, all but eliminated print journalism from my life.

On the screen, I can’t concentrate on an article for more than a few minutes (a new email has come in, or maybe there’s just one more picture that needs to be toned…). Long form articles spread over multiple pages are annoying at best. More than that, I sit looking at a screen plenty already during the day, and would rather relax while reading than hunch staring at a bright monitor. The Kindle might solve this problem a little, but have you seen how awful the New York Times looks on a Kindle?

And let’s not forget about how completely unreadable most major media sites actually are. With ads, blurbs, top right and left navigation bars, and the like, it can be hard to find the content, especially when reading the local newspaper sites. While some sites provide a no-frills printable version of articles, not all media give the option. Enter Readability, a customizable bookmarklet that automatically eliminates page cruft and resizes the page to a custom width, type size, and typeface. I think I’m in love. Put the bookmarklet in your toolbar and click on it when you’re on an unreadable page. More often than not, you’ll get a perfect-sized column of easily readable text that is exactly the article you want to read and nothing more. Photography included in the article will be interspersed throughout the text, though captions sometimes end up looking like part of the next. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a far sight better than every newspaper and magazine website currently on the internet.

Another great option that I used to use is the Multi-Column Articles greasemonkey script (wikipedia explanation of greasemonkey), but I haven’t been impressed with greasemonkey support in Chrome, my new browser of choice. The usefulness of that script, which emulates a newspaper’s multi-column layout, is limited to a dozen or so websites, though most of the big news sites are covered.