Pros and Cons of Digital Magazines


The office was abuzz this week with the launch of Virgin Digital Publishing’s iPad-only Project digital magazine.

“Have you seen the new Virgin app?” one of my staff said, holding our research iPad.

He held up the iPad and flipped through a few stories.

“It’s pretty cool. They’re trying to make content interactive, and include video in the layout,” he gushed.

“Like the web?”, I asked.

Later that same day, my boss was looking at Project, and was a bit unimpressed by the clunky and unintuitive feel of the interface.

“It’s a bit buggy and hard to use,” he said.

“Like the web?”, I asked.

In art school, I had a history professor that taught me one very important thing—the old medium becomes the content of the new medium.

I’m not sure how that’s relevant here, but it sounds cool.

Where was I? Oh yeah, new mediums. The iPad, as much as I love it (you should buy one if you haven’t already), is not a new medium. It’s a new package for a medium we’ve had for quite some time — the internet. It’s a great package, a tactile package, but not more than that.

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Taking older mediums (pre-web mediums) like books, magazines, or television and trying to port them to the internet, or worse, to a mobile app, just doesn’t make sense. [pullthis id=”appification”]We abandoned magazines and newspapers for the internet years ago, didn’t we?[/pullthis]

If it is not hyperlinked, social, real-time, user-generated, and ubiquitously available, does it have a place in our lives today? Does a general interest magazine, produced by one of the richest men on the planet, with more artifice than art have any validity?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for experimentation (R&D is my job). I’m all for pushing the boundaries and coming up with new ways to use a medium. Or coming up with new mediums. But content is king, and traditional magazine content is just not that relevant anymore.

Publishing now

Prior to the launch of the iPad, a group called Bonnier released a video detailing the research they’d been doing to bring magazines into the digital age. Mag+ was the result. (Appropriately, Popular Science+ was the first Mag+ published when the iPad was released.) The interface in the Mag+ prototype was refined and the concepts well thought out. Editorial content was given priority over interface artifice. At the time, it seemed as though tablets would provide a fresh and interactive way of navigating content — a much needed improvement over the age-old and not-so-intuitive keyboard and mouse.

When the iPad was released, the digital publishing revolution never really happened. E-books and digital magazines just didn’t hold the prominence that people thought they would. Sure, I’ve mostly eliminated my printed magazine purchases in favour of viewing them digitally (mostly to save paper and space), but, in general, people aren’t using the iPad (or their smartphones) to view statically produced content (even it is multimedia). They are using their devices to stay connected to the internet and all the dynamic and social content it contains.

The iPad (like the iPhone before it) did change the way people interact with content, but that content primarily comes from the web, not traditional media vendors, like Virgin. I’m going to make a completely un-scientific estimate and say that 95% of the text and video content people are interested in today comes from user-generated articles, blogs feeds, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.

Bonnier have recently announce the next phase of their digital publishing research, News+. Similar to Mag+, News+ promises to bring newspaper publishing into the digital age, packaging the news in a format that makes sense in the mobile, ubiquitous computing age. Content will still be packaged and curated by the media vendor, to “filter out the din of the web”1, but will update throughout the day as stories change. You will be able to share comments with authors and other readers. Again, it looks promising, but I can’t help but think that this is effort is too little, too late. Or even a bit misdirected.

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As digital citizens we know where to find content that meets our interests. We have friends, networks, people we follow on Twitter, and blog feeds we subscribe to. We don’t need another source of content. We need a better package for the personalized content we are interested in. [pullthis id=”uber-aggregator”]We need an über content aggregator, with the ability to get content from any source, filter it, and present it in an interactive and meaningful way.[/pullthis]

Qwiki, a beta multimedia information aggregator, is a step in the right direction. It mashes together text-based wiki content, photos, and videos and presents them in an interesting audio-visual format. But it’s more like an encyclopedia of knowledge than a source for real-time information.

Real-time aggregator tools and apps do exist today. One of my favourite apps, Reeder for iPhone and iPad (in combination with Google Reader), let’s me create a taylor made constantly updated feed of information from multiple sources and consume it whenever and wherever I am. Likewise, the iPad app Flipboard streams content from Facebook and Twitter activity, organizing it in a topical multimedia magazine format.

Unlike Project, the experience of these apps is great and the content is, well, mine. Like the web.


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