The New York Times has been stealth developing a new format for its daily news. TechCrunch has a summary. The horizontal, grid-like layout is reminiscent of the Google Fast Flip, but I buy the suggestion in the TechCrunch comments that this format is being readied for the putative Apple iTablet computer, aka slate device.

That could well be; and it would make sense for Apple to launch the Tablet with something like the NYT as a core offering in its media-player. However, if the NYT is prepping a special format for the tablet, that is almost certainly a poor long-term move for the New York Times (not much different from its earlier play with Microsoft and the ill-fated Microsoft Reader). When the initial Apple enthusiasm is spent and the tablet has been ingested, the New York Times is left with another variant format to support; or as in the case of ‘Microsoft Reader’ Times readers, another batch of audience to disappoint. The Tablet needs to work with the New York Times as it is and the Times needs to work with every web capable device that there is. Every gadget capable of running a standard browser.

Newspaper publishers feel inexorably drawn towards customising their offering for each new ultra-fashionable device that comes along, and this is an issue at the core of their current dilemma (or their owners acutely sharpening current financial dilemma). The last time I counted: the Guardian (my favourite newspaper) was trying to optimize its content offering across half a dozen different platforms (from print to audio via web, mobile, video, RSS, PDF and blogosphere); and I am sure there are more coming. Even the web site is now being tweaked for optimum delivery in different web environments. There may soon be Apple iPhone, Kindle, Blackberry, Google Android, and Nokia-tweaked editions of different newspapers in web and digital formats (Pre anyone?) for all the different flavours of device out there. And if you think there will be only one dominant Android form factor you may have another think coming.

Newspaper publishers may think that the costs of these proliferating platforms are not falling to them (the adaptations are being paid for by technology partners, or by advertisers, or by new revenue streams from putative subscribers). Wrong. The cost is falling on the publisher who needs to maintain a very complex editorial and content management infrastructure and the cost is also falling on the brand which is inevitably being fragmented as the familiar format and style of the newspaper is poorly distributed and lost in these variant editions. Big damage to brand through content fragmentation and sub-optimal design. One of the principal advantages of a digital edition as the primary offering for a newspaper to its web subscribers is that it is offering the very same newspaper as to print buyers. That correspondence has to re-inforce the brand and develops a climate of continuity, predictability and reliability between print and web editions.

Why are newspaper publishers chasing these sub-optimal, format-based, solutions so frantically? I suggest that there are two reasons. The first is that the horizontal, hierarchical, RSS-friendly formats such as Google Fast Flip are well suited to the sequential, evolving, 24 hour real time operation of the news room. Better adapted than the page-based format of the traditional broadsheet or tabloid newspapers. My bet is that these horizontal formats, with the accent on left/right movement, will be adopted by news organisations that are not primarily newspapers (Fast Flip is working with article feeds from the BBC and Salon) and that a few newspapers will migrate in this direction.

But most newspapers really need to work with their historic format, a package in which news, editorial, features and photographs are integrated and distributed and which does not absolutely require paper since digital pages also work. Digital newspapers, when they have learnt the strength of the digital package that they can easily become, will adhere to their page-format style, their section-based daily organisation; the inescapable penalty of the daily edition cycle, which imposes deadlines and a rectangular organisation on the news, opinions, stories and illustrations that they contain. The new Apple Tablet/Slate will be good for this whether it is held in portrait or horizontal mode, and the New York Times will be making a mistake it it postrates itself in horizontal mode to make the most of the 11″ aluminum casing of the early models.

Bring on the tablet which should be an ideal format for digital editions in all shapes and sizes. If it is any good (and it will be) it will be a wonderful showcase for the New York Times just as it is. Oh yes, for a certainty each edition will need to be ‘carefully put to bed’ as they used to say on Fleet Street. No more than that. Newspapers will thrive on the web when they know what it is to be a digital newspaper. Remarkably similar in many ways to a print newspaper, but better.