Magazines reloaded

A revolution in publishing is taking place as the world’s
first truly digital magazines emerge

The magazine has evolved over several hundred years to become a highly successful form of mass communication. Its success is in part due to that length of time, a period over which an industry has grown up that not only services the weekly/monthly production cycles but also invests in improving the product. Behind what may appear to the reader to be a static form, there have been countless innovations and technological developments, that have been seized upon by publishers hungry for improvement.

From the exclusive early magazines of the 17th century to today’s mass-production, the processes of paper manufacture, page creation, printing and distribution have been endlessly improved and refined. The modern production process is quicker, cheaper and provides colour reproduction of a far higher level than even the highest definition digital screen. The new challenge is maintaining this quality while dealing with concerns over energy use and environmental waste. Doable or not, there are many supplier companies lined up behind the publishers striving to achieve these aims. Magazine publishing remains a vibrant, developing industry that at its best is striving to improve its product.

This willingness to adapt has led to many attempts to challenge the dominant printed form. Magazines have long carried music and video as extras, first as plastic flexi discs, then as cassette tapes and now as CDs, DVDs and download codes. In the 80s, audio magazines were trialed – A4 boards with a cassette tape attached – and there were several attempts at CD-Rom magazines in the 90s, most notably the US title Blender which survived 15 issues before becoming a website. The following ten years or so was a period during which magazines were expected to launch websites and embrace the online future.

More recently, publishers have taken advantage of broadband access to provide online pdf versions of their magazines (mimicking page-turning complete with ‘whoosh’ noises) and print-on-demand has helped smaller publishers avoid wastage. Yet none of these have really cut through to become mainstream.

All these experiments have encouraged the more open-minded of us in publishing to hold out hope that some form of digital magazine might one day exist. That the content creation and design skills of print publishing could crossover to the digital realm and create engaging editorial experiences that are neither print magazine nor website, but true digital magazines.

Today, at last, it looks like a serious attempt at doing exactly that is just around the corner. As I write, online speculation is reaching fever pitch about Apple’s plans for 2010. A quick combined précis of the rumours goes like this: ‘On January 19 Apple will announce their tablet computer, an over-sized iPod Touch christened the iSlate’. That’s three weeks from today as I write, which is also three weeks before publication of this issue of cr, so further comment is pointless at this stage. However, two recently released concept videos give some clues to how digital magazines might look on the Apple device.

US publisher Time Inc was first to release their concept, a re-make of an issue of Sports Illustrated that stuck too tightly to the idea of a printed magazine. It was a step beyond the pdf page turner, though, and coming from such a major publisher was a strong indicator of the seriousness of this direction for the industry – indeed, the general mood of the video feels like it is intended to reassure and persuade industry insiders rather than engage the wider world.

A more creatively exciting concept came from Swedish publisher Bonnier, working with design agency Berg. Fronted by Berg creative director Jack Schulze, their video brought to bear a non-magazine industry analysis of editorial design and content, concentrating as much on the hardware as the software. The film made me want the device as much for its physical presence as for the way the content was presented and could be manipulated. This version makes a more explicit case for the device as the likely way forward in publishing.

At the centre of all this of course is Apple. Whether or not they’ve made the expected tablet announcement by the time you’re reading this, they already have a hold on the other major development in digital publishing, the downloadable Apps for your iPod touch and iPhone. Magazine publishers have been quietly trialing these as a form of publishing, with mixed success.
The first tranche to get out of the way are the Apps created by the aforementioned pdf page-turner companies. Titles such as The Spectator have licensed the software in order to sell subscriptions to PDFs of the printed magazine. Being simply a pdf of the printed edition, the user has to zoom in on the pdf pages to read the content, not the easiest way to read long form content such as that found in The Spectator. A lazy, if cheap to produce, way to get your content distributed via iTunes.

Others magazines such as Time Out and OK! have taken the brand extension route, releasing free/sponsored Apps that promote their print editions, giving basic London listings (making use of gps and mapping) and celebrity gossip respectively. Neither are particularly well conceived or designed.

Movie magazine Empire goes slightly further, their App providing a searchable database of over 9,000 movie reviews that is well worth the £2.99 price. This is less an editorial piece than a handy tool, but it does reinforce Empire’s position as a source of movie knowledge. Searches can be made by movie name, director, actors or genres, and user favourites can be stored.
The more successful Apps have taken better care to tailor themselves to the screen environment. Interview’s special 40th anniversary issue from last year remains available as a one-off App at £2.39. The issue has been redesigned to suit the small screen format, and is far more engaging for that, if rather slight in extent. This points to far more interesting possibilities than the other Apps above, sharing the high-end Fabien Baron design of the print magazine and providing subtle but highly functional navigation. Also from the US, GQ has its December 09 issue available as a free App.

It deals well with a larger volume of content, but is let down again by the need for a live internet connection.

The print edition of Distill magazine has been on hold for several months, but they’ve just released issue three as an App (£2.99). This is a smart move, the App version making more sense than the print edition in some respects. An annotated record of fashion photography trends in independent magazines, Distill’s content is made for the small screen. The App lets you flick through the images quickly and easily, with functional navigation guiding you to further information as required. The screen version provides a better overview while conflicting less with the original printed magazines in which the images appeared. But why no links to the featured publications?

Children’s magazine Anorak has an App (59p) that is just as immersive as the Distill App but could hardly be more different. This is a large App to download, but like Distill, once it’s on your device you don’t need a live connection. Bright colours and spoken audio welcome children to a series of stories, games and activities that make good use of the touch screen. It stands on its own but also serves as strong promotion for the printed magazine.

My last two examples each provide a clue to what makes a successful magazine App. US publisher McSweeney’s has a superb literary magazine App (£3.49 for an annual sub) that is beautifully devised to take full advantage of a screen environment. Some material is downloaded, some needs a live connection, but the functionality and design is superbly simple and intuitive and despite being text-led is very easy to read on the screen. It expresses its curatorial role perfectly, repurposing content from various McSweeney’s publications to provide regular updates. A really well thought-out App that stands apart as a great example of App design, let alone magazine App design.

Lastly, a special mention for the recently launched App from The Guardian. Not strictly a magazine, obviously, but a useful reminder that an App doesn’t need to be all bells and whistles. This App delivers news and opinion from the newspaper in a cleverly designed package that does the clever things – such as letting the user read stories through various filters – while being simple to use and fast – really fast – to update. By far the best news App, it is now my preferred way to read The Guardian.

These last two examples provide unique editorial environments that reflect rather than copy their associated printed editions. They are very functional and enjoyable editorial projects. Now, if they can do that on a 50 × 75mm screen, what might they be able to do on the tablet?

Jeremy Leslie runs the blog

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