Commentary

Poking The Shrink Wrap On Digital Editions

Reports are mixed about the success of “digital editions” of monthly and weekly magazines on tablets. There was a burst of activity among the major publishers after Apple finally instituted its Newsstand and saner subscription models in iTunes. Some marquee titles are boasting of selling tens of thousands of digital edition subs. But other editors -- like Technology Review’s Jason Pontin in an infamous rant -- claim apps are not worthwhile for most magazines.

Personally, I am a defender of the digital edition, even nominally enhanced version of magazines. I have a number of subscriptions that allow me to authenticate a Newsstand download, and I routinely give the issues away when they come in and read the digital versions.

One under-reported aspect of tablet mags is that many titles found that their unenhanced versions running on Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color were doing better than some titles on the iPad. After a first wave of dazzling effects poured into tablet issues, it turns out that many readers just didn’t care whether their splash page danced for them.

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The basic act of thumbing through relatively static pages on a tablet can be so much more engaging than scrolling a Web site that blogs like Engadget -- and sites like Huffington Post and Funny or Die have all launched magazine-like experiences in the iTunes Newsstand, although all of them have sites and apps with real-time content. AOL saw engagement rates ten times higher on content in its Distro magazine app, although most of the content was repurposed from the Engadget Web site.  

To me, the place where magazines have still fallen short on the tablet is in finding smarter ways to combine the engagement of the magazine page with the dynamism of their Web sites. Some magazines like SI experimented with having some live site content embedded into their weekly digital edition drop. I have seen some others try to add it into the shell app that holds the library of issues. Often a small “Web” bug in the menu will bring up an embedded browser.

In my mind, it is clear that the tablet allows magazine to create a digital home for their longer-form content that the Web simply never allowed. At the same time, there is an opportunity here to reimagine the magazine and the Web site in new and fascinating ways. I haven’t a clue what that will resemble. But some publishers are making first stabs at it.

AMI’s Enquirer Plus is a fascinating attempt to make a hybrid of Web material and the weekly tabloid. Subscribers get a weekly digital issue, but also receive daily refreshes that add new content to a special section. There is a reason and a route for opening the weekly app daily.

Bloomberg Businessweek+ is among the best digital magazines around, mainly because it links the content of the week’s issues to dynamic charts, tickers and news stories. Tap a company name in one of the long-form articles and the magazine app sucks in beautifully rendered content. This is a fascinating experiment in hybrid media. But I have to say that the excellent execution only begs the questions about the juxtaposition of standard ported print content with dynamic feeds. Even here they are not quite peanut butter and chocolate -- two flavors that create a new and interesting blend.

SPIN magazine has been one of the most novel extensions of a print brand. Its combo magazine, news feed and music discovery engine is refreshing and makes good on the multimedia depth that the tablet can bring to an entertainment magazine. Some books like People and Entertainment Weekly are starting to embed samples of audio and video from the entertainment they review and preview in their tablet editions. This should be de rigeur. I never understood why  the Web hadn’t already developed some editorial conventions for embedding media samples into digital prose. We really need a more seamless way to “quote” from film, TV and music in the course of writing about it.

It seems to me there is a real opportunity with tablets to rethink editorial conventions and what a content brand looks like. We have had the static convention of print turned on its head into real-time delivery on the Web, and it pretty much killed rich engagement with content. There is something else possible with a connected medium that allows for lean-back consumption rather than lean-in content grabbing. Magazines like the Atlantic and Tte Week are playing with ways of making their apps home to both live Web content and the regular mag issue.

There must be a next step for making the app a more seamless portal to a brand’s full portfolio of content, but in ways that really poke holes in the platform silos that still are there. The multi-screen world we are all talking about right now only becomes real when each of the screens really is connected to allow fluid current of content to move among them. Let the media user decide which platform she wants as primary (video, text, audio) -- but then somehow let her pull the others in as wanted to complement the experience.

More than just a second or third screen, the tablet could be a place where all of those “screens” (if we also want to call magazines a ‘screen’) can both co-exist and cooperate.   

1 comment about "Poking The Shrink Wrap On Digital Editions ".
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  1. Daniel Ambrose from ambro.com, corp., July 13, 2012 at 1:14 p.m.

    Steve, good stuff here...thanks...now I have to go back and try the BusinessWeek one again...

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