by George Heymann

Digital magazines, the iPad and tablet computers… what’s it all about?

by A. Montaqim


Digital magazines and newspapers will be more widely read than print magazines and newspapers within 10 years. That’s my prediction

I first walked into a newspaper office when I was still in my teens, when my friend took me to his house, where his family owned and produced a weekly tabloid newspaper for the community. The newspaper was printed on 55 gsm paper, as far as I remember.

The process of putting it together seems so ancient now, but it involved a typesetting machine that spewed out reams and reams of text in unattractive blocks which were then cut into column shapes using a surgical scalpel and then these columns were stuck on to a pasteboard, in a much more attractive way.

This was the late 1980s, before the emergence of desktop publishing and all manner of publishing methods which have been bewildering us now for years.

I’ll get on to those later on in the article, but for now I’ll finish the pasteboard story.

So this pasteboard, or grid-lined page, would end end up having lots of columns of text stuck on to it using

glue, or wax, with gaps here and there for the printer to make bromides of the original photographs –

supplied with the pasted up pages by the layout artist – and place the 90 dpi bromides into the gaps.

These pasteboards would be photographed and negative film would be run out of a machine and that film would be used to make metal plates.

Although I became familiar with the process, I’m not sure if I’m remembering all the jargon correctly.

What I’m certain of though is that I found it such a fascinating process that I never left the media after that.

I used to help out at this community newspaper, often staying up all night during press days and then, the

Printing presses are increasingly a thing of the past

next day, feeling the exhilaration of seeing the finished article, the printed copy of the newspaper, holding it in my hands, flicking through the pages and thinking how attractive they looked, and subconsciously reflecting on the torrid process of putting the whole thing together. Of course, I’d have to wash the ink off my hands afterwards, but I was young and wild… and I didn’t care about ink on my hands.

As I say, I’m not sure if I’ve explained the process in a way that readers who have had similar experience can identify with, but I think I’ve explained my own introduction to the technical side of print media reasonably accurately.

Within a couple of years of this gritty experience, I had worked at several community newspapers and magazines in London, where I live. I enjoyed everything I did – and I did pretty much everything. But mostly I researched and wrote articles.

When it came to layout, I tried and I was ok, but it was a skill that required time to learn. Even though desktop publishing has made it easier, it is still a skill that take time to learn.

And although I respected it, the first time I was introduced to computer layout, I was mesmerized beyond my comprehension. And that pretty much sums up my reaction to every new development I have witnessed during what has been a global media revolution.

The computer I was introduced to was, of course, an Apple Macintosh. It was 1990, and the machine I really wanted was the Apple IIcx. But I ended up getting an Amstrad first, which ran DOS, so I could type in the stories and give it to the layout guys who would use the IIcx and other Apple machines.

However, transferring text from a DOS machine to an Apple proved confusing to say the least, and I eventually plucked up the courage to buy an Apple Macintosh. It was an SE, if I remember correctly, with a tiny screen.

But through that tiny little window I saw a world of wonder. I was inside the Apple world as soon as I understood the connection between the mouse and the arrow on the screen. Clicking, dragging and doing whatever else the on-screen tutorial was telling me to do, I think of myself sitting there and knowing, just knowing, that this is the way all publications will be made within a few years.

I’m not sure how long it’s taken – I wasn’t counting – but I can’t imagine any publication in the world (even in the poorest of countries) is still using the cut-and-paste typeset text and bromide method. Maybe there is, but I don’t know about it.

What I do know is something about how changes occur in media. I briefly worked at a cable television station for a while in the mid-1990s. I was there for a year, learning how to use a bewildering array of analogue equipment.

All I wanted to do was tell stories using video, not get acquainted with a few thousand cables and get familiar with where their assorted endpoints lived… and all those buttons!

I loved television work for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because video editing presented such wonderful opportunities for creative expression. Doesn’t matter what the report was about, the video editing was always a buzz, unless of course the footage was dire, but mostly my stuff was ok.

Those were the days when the terms such as “video journalists” were being awkwardly used by media analysts developing a new language to describe the new media phenomenon, borne of digital cameras and “nonlinear editing” and computers.

I had already seen what had happened in the print media, how Apple and QuarkXpress had completely transformed the entire industry, and the same was happening to television, or broadcasting and film-making. It took a while but Apple and Final Cut Pro are the essential tools for budding film makers and video journalists everywhere. Apple was also the machine of choice for sound engineers, who often worked in the music and entertainment business.

I mention these things because I often hear and read people say that Apple are just an overpriced fashion items. Overpriced it may be, but the machine and its technology have clearly changed so many people’s working lives. Most people in the media – particularly those who work in production departments where a powerful and reliable computer is absolutely essential – would not want anything other than the trusty Mac. No other machine is still able to deal with massively memory-hungry tasks in quite the way Macs can.

Now, with the launch of the iPad, Apple is again showing it has the power to completely transform the media landscape, although not to everyone’s liking.

It was interesting to read such an experienced and learned media man as Jann Wenner, co-founder of rolling Stone magazine, almost completely dismiss the advent of digital magazines on iPads and other tablets.

Mr Wenner had noted that magazines were rushing to set up digital versions of their successful print media on iPad, saying it was a result of “sheer insanity and insecurity and fear”.

In the interview with Advertising Age, Mr Wenner said (and I quote him at length): “The tablet itself is a really fun device. Some people are going to enjoy it a lot and use it. Some people aren’t. On this plane one person’s traveling with a tablet, one’s not. There’s a certain trendiness to the thing. And it’s a great thing. But is it a good magazine thing?

“It’s a good magazine reading device, absolutely. And where it becomes more convenient to read the magazine on that, that’s got the advantage. But that’s more convenient only if you’re traveling, if you’re away from home. Otherwise it’s still easier to read the physical magazine, which is widely available on newsstands, at airports, and everywhere. You can still subscribe to get it and get it on time. You still get all the value of the magazine.

“I don’t think that gives you much advantage as a magazine reader to read it on the tablet – in fact less so. It’s a little more difficult.

“From the publisher’s point of view I would think they’re crazy to encourage it. They’re going to get less money for it from advertisers. Right now it costs a fortune to convert your magazine, to program it, to get all the things you have to do on there. And they’re not selling. You know, 5,000 copies there, 3,000 copies here, it’s not worth it. You haven’t put a dent in your R&D costs.

“So I think that they’re prematurely rushing and showing little confidence and faith in what they’ve really got, their real asset, which is the magazine itself, which is still a great commodity. It’s a small additive; it’s not the new business.”

Mr Wenner went on to say people’s reading habits will change, but will take a lot longer than a few months…

“Not months. Decades, probably. People’s habits will shift, they’ll make improvements in the delivery system, the screen will change, it will get lighter, whatever, and new people growing up will find that as a habit. But you’re talking about a generation at least, maybe two generations, before the shift is decisive.”

In what made for fascinating reading (if you’re at all interested in the media), Mr Wenner said he wouldn’t adopt the strategy of other companies such as Popular Science, which has created one of the best iPad digital magazine apps seen so far.

He said Rolling Stone was available in digital format through the magazine’s website or through Zinio, the digital newsstand. So he saw no need to rush into an agreement with Apple to distribute through iPad because, essentially, the financial terms were not acceptable.

I agree with a lot of things Mr Wenner said, although I don’t know what the Apple terms are for distributing through iPad, so I can’t comment on that. I agree that people’s reading habits will change over time, but I don’t agree that a decisive shift will take as long as a generation – however long that is.

I think it will take around 10 years for people who read digital magazines on iPad and other tablet computers to outnumber people who buy printed magazines and newspapers.

Websites have already proven that people are prepared to read on a computer screen – even though pretty much everyone agrees that printed magazines and newspapers are aesthetically more pleasing and physically more comfortable to hold and read. Compared to a tablet computer. Arguably.

The imperceptible flicker of a computer screen, whether it’s real or just in my imagination, the fact that high quality pictures look better in print, the fact that typography stays more true and doesn’t get mangled or compromised by the limitations of the web, and other such concerns have not been deterrent enough to people who like to surf the net and read various websites, including Rolling Stone. Myself included. Although maybe a visit to Rolling Stone’s website might be good during the course of writing this article.

I’ve read the magazine before, of course. The website looks good, as you’d expect. A magazine as legendary as any of the music legends it has written about over the years. In publishing terms.

Not sure how much money it’s making, but I guess it’s making a tidy sum.

Most publishers have been concerned for many years about the move to publishing on the web and the gradual decline of print.

Now that finally online advertising market is larger than the print media advertising market, most leading websites are profitable, as are many more, much smaller operators.

It’s tough not to be profitable if you have hundreds of millions of people coming to your website, as Google does. But it’s easy to struggle if you’re attracting less than 500,000 visitors in a month.

However, it’s misleading to imply that the relationship between the number of visitors and the amount of revenue and profit is that simple. Websites with relatively small audiences can make huge profits while websites with huge audiences can make losses.

Then there’s Wikipedia. Where would we be without Wikipedia? A not-for-profit enterprise that’s worth several billion at least.

So, where were we? Digital mags, iPad, tablet computers, and magazine apps specially designed for those devices.

A survey conducted by The Harrison Group on behalf of Zinio, which publishes digital versions of many leading print magazines, revealed that 35 percent of digital magazine subscribers pay more attention to the ads than they do when reading physical magazines.

Printed magazines are aesthetically pleasing and comfortable to hold, but it seems digital magazines have what takes to grab readers’ attention – and that may well prove to be the key to their success.

Printed material can really only amaze you with amazing content. The format itself is not as versatile as its digital counterpart. I mean, how many wraparounds and cover-mounted CDs and DVDs and books and whatnot have you had to deal with?

Yes, they can be fun. I was especially impressed when I first opened a scented advertisement in a glossy mag many years ago. Must have been expensive to produce. And that’s the other issue: money. That’s always the issue. There’s simply less money in digital, which is why the move towards is slow.

But to finish my point about versatility: essentially, printed material is limited in how much experimentation is good or bad, impressive or otherwise, so they have to rely on the quality of their content to impress readers.

Tablet computers, on the other hand, have the capacity to wow you not only with the quality of the content – the writing, photography, design and so on – but also, crucially, with experimenting with the format itself.

Some experiments might return better results than others, but there’s far more opportunity for creativity in digital magazine design than there is in print magazine design.

Also, I think of my switch from the dark DOS screen to the tiny Mac screen with me graphically represented on the screen, in the Apple world, by the arrow/pointer, physically and mentally entwined, betwixt, a mouse.

Surely, people are not yet jaded enough to be blasé about innovative digital magazine apps? They look impressive to me. But then I was maybe overly impressed when I first saw a website that used Flash for an excellent intro that would look good even today.

But Flash effects are just a part of what can be achieved with tablet computers when it comes to creating innovative digital magazine formats.

Perhaps, even the most beautifully designed printed magazines, with even the best content, will not be able to compete with the microcosmic feelings of exhilaration that computers do have the power to inspire.

That could be seen as the decisive moment.

If there was one group of techies I would trust to deliver those microcosmic feelings (in a beautifully designed digital device no doubt), it would be the people at Apple.

They have consistently concentrated on the experiential element of using technology generally, and a computer specifically.

And the digital magazine apps that I have seen on iPad have been brilliant. Much, much better than visiting a website.

And that is where I think the immediate battle will be fought – online, on the web. I think digital magazines will take advertising money away from websites as well as print. But I think the decline in ad spend on websites, when it comes, will be sharper than the decline in ad spend in print – because of the growth in popularity of digital magazines.

Print media has already had its day and it’s already had its most significant decline. It will continue to shrink, but probably stabilize within five years. But there will always be an audience for print media. Smaller than before, but sizable nonetheless.

Let’s face it: a lot of us would like subscriptions to the world’s best magazines. With digital media, we’ll be able to afford them more easily. Circulation figures of digital magazines will skyrocket if the publishers get it right.

Pricing is an important issue. But it’s not the only thing. Perhaps the music industry and its dealings with Apple could be a guide.

Whatever people’s criticisms of Apple, each market the company has gone into since back in the days of the iPod, was fragmented and disorganized.

The music industry and its suspicion of the online world – suspicion bordering on hostility – was overcome with the simple but brilliant logic and contained emotion surrounding the Apple iTunes concept.

Apple came along with not just a shiny new toy, but also a clear vision of what the market required and a determination to deliver. It has consistently innovated and almost everything it does is copied by almost everyone else.

Tablet computers are not new, but the iPad concept has made it seem like there were no tablets before Apple came along. And, having tried, tested and succeeded with iTunes, a similar conceptual and digital framework will undoubtedly succeed. Succeed in making millions of us digital magazine readers within a matter of months.

According to one estimate that a commenter mentioned in response to the Ad Age interview, there will be some 40 million iPads and other tablets in circulation by the end of 2011. That sounds like a small market,  but I think that by the end of 2012 it will be well above 100 million.

The main reason will be that tablet prices will come down.

Google Android tablets are already selling for a lot less money than the competing Apple device.

And the other main reason is that websites are generally messy. Packed full of information, but very rarely anything but a visual onslaught that tires you out even more than reading. The adverts are generally irritating and annoying and not at all context sensitive. Print magazine ads, on the other hand, are often beautiful to look at.

Digital magazines will bring a whole new design aesthetic to the web and it will be much the better for it.

I’m not sure what HTML5 capabilities are – I ought to look into it – but even with all the improvements in website design and functionality, it’s unlikely that websites will be able to deliver reading experiences as attention-grabbing and as interesting as digital magazines are able to, even today.


Filed under: Apple, General technology, iOS, Ipad, Media, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. Magazines on iPad look stunning. I love reading digital magazines on iPads and iPhones. I use Other edition’s newsstand for reading digital magazines.

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