Publishing on the iPad: “Like Playing 3-D Checkers”

In Ed's Perspective by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Sports Illustrated magazine was among the first major magazines to release a demo for tablets and the iPad. Their original offered some gee-whiz features – but was a prototype. The magazine has had an app available for the iPad since April, but this week it releases its first issue designed specifically for the iPad and it’s interesting to not what they have been able to do — and, of more importance, haven’t.

Editor-in-Chief Terry McDonnell writes about the opportunities and challenges of publishing on the iPad this week’s Editor’s Letter.

He notes that the LCD screen on the iPad makes photography pop off the virtual page in a way that the magazine can’t achieve on paper and, accordingly, they’ve used twice as many photographs on the iPad than the magazine. They’ve added a 24/7 News Feed and you can customize RSS and news feeds to only follow your favorite teams and sports. Naturally, there are lots of videos available.

What sounds most intriguing is something McDonnell calls “The Wheel” – which sounds a bit like a medieval torture device – but is actually used to share stories on social media.

The iPad version was designed by Chris Hercik, in conjunction with David Link and the Wonderfactory. Hercik, who tried to avoid any “up-down-double-tap-reset” functionality, described designing for the iPad like “playing 3-D Checkers.”

“You have to be constantly aware of what the reader-user will experience from every direction. It’s ergonomic,” he said.

At the same time SI has been forced to make some compromises, many of which are pointed out by Peter Kafka on the WSJ’s All Things D site.

The biggest problem, writes Kafka, is that the app isn’t currently able to offer live up-to-the-minute information, like the Web. It can’t offer updated scores or commentary, for example.

SI is known for great writing, but the one handicap of the magazine is that it’s always dated by the time it reaches you — this week’s issue, for instance, only covers the US’s World Cup campaign through it’s 2-2 tie with Slovakia and went to press before our thrilling  last-minute win over Algeria on Wednesday.

“When you hold a print version of SI, timeliness doesn’t feel like a problem. Presumably because you don’t have any other expectations,” writes Kafka. “But when you’re reading it in digital form, on a device connected to the Web…” He calls it a “liability. The same goes for other newsweeklies, from Time to Publishers Weekly.

SI reasons that they are offering a “curated” experience, one that helps edit the “firehose” of information online. But to Kafka, at least, this isn’t enough.

“If Sports Illustrated really wants me to pay up for this one, it needs to plug in, too,” he writes.

And at $4.99 an issue, the app is significantly more expensive per issue than a subscription to the magazine — by a long shot.

Overall, this makes me think that news truly belongs on the Web, where it can be updated at the blink of an eye. The real strength of any magazine in this digital age remains in commentary and analysis and not in breaking news. If this was ever to be proven, it was this past week when Rolling Stone’s game-changing interview with General Stanley McChrystal hit the Web and the headlines several days prior to the magazine ever reaching newsstands.

Magazines will, at some point, have to realize that the Web and the iPad are separate but equal forums that will co-exist with their existing print product, but not replace them. Readers know this too. (Just look at Kafka’s comments). But the opportunity here is that the best magazines, the one’s with strong brands and great writing might even be able to get people to pay twice, which is a phenomenon that we are seeing with books.

How many people do you know that are buying both a print and e-book version of the same title? I know several. Our digital lifestyle, ironically, demands that we actually buy more media in the long-run, than less — provided the digital versions offer something beyond the print, or rather, something that extends and amplifies the print experience. (It’s the sustainable value model that we wrote about here yesterday).

If publishers can figure out how to that, they then might really be able to cash in.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.