Revisiting Digital Magazines

Way back when I first got my iPad 2, I began the long-awaited transition from paper-to-digital magazines. At the time, the only magazine that I read that really had a decent digital edition was New Scientist. I used the Zinio app to access my magazine, and at first, Ioved it. Later, Scientific American became available in digital form and my subscription afforded me access to a PDF copy of the magazine each month. This, too, was pretty cool. Eventually, I read other magazines using Zinio as well. Over time, however, my excitement waned.

There were a few problems. Most notably, was the fact that my iPad screen was smaller than the typical magazine. Since both Zinio and the Scientific American PDF essentially rendered the magazine as-is, it meant a lot of zooming and moving around in order to read articles. In Zinio, I could change to “article” mode, but when I did that, it no longer felt like reading a magazine. Here, for instance, is what a page of the Scientific American PDF looks like on my iPad:

Sciam PDF
PDF version of the Scientific American article.

In order to be able to read it, I need to pinch-and-zoom, and then move the page around. The same was true of my subscriptions in Zinio. While the magazine looked exactly as it did in print, it was harder to read on the smaller screen. It seemed to me that the experience of reading the magazine was lost somewhat, and my magazine reading scaled back because of this.

A magazine interface for iPads

Recently, my desire to read magazines has increased, but when I thought about reading them on the iPad, I balked. I considered returning to paper subscriptions because for me, unlike with books, there is a certain interaction with magazines that was absent from the simple Zinio and PDF versions that I was looking at. With a book, I typically read straight through, and so e-books have never seemed any different to me than paper books. But with magazines, I jump around quite a bit, and the interfaces I’d encountered thus far, were not conducive to that.

I was almost ready to pull the trigger on paper magazine subscriptions, when I remembered that in the time since I started reading magazines electronically, Apple had introduced their Newsstand app. I’d never tried it out, and since many of my subscriptions were available electronically through the Newsstand, I figured I’d give it a try.

It was an eye-opening experience.

Unlike Zinio and PDF copies of magazines, which reproduce the magazine exactly as it appears on newsstands, the Newsstand versions are adapted for iPad use. Navigation of the magazine is easy. You swipe left or right to move from article to article. Within an article, you scroll up or down to read or move from page-to-page within the article. It’s very simple, easy to use, and best of all, the articles are rendered for an iPad screen. So no zooming is necessary. That same Scientific American article I illustrated above in its PDF incarnation looks like this on my iPad:

iPad Mag 1
iPad version of the Scientific American article. Scrolling up or down scrolls through the article.

What’s more, while the Newsstand version is designed for the iPad interface, it still maintains much of the look and feel of the magazine. Many Scientific American articles make use of sidebars, and those sidebars are carried over neatly into the iPad format:

iPad Mag 2
Newsstand article with sidebars

You can also see there are other interactions, like clicking for video links and other content that wouldn’t be part of the regular magazine, or PDF edition.

I’m probably late the game in this discovery, but it made all of the difference for me. The five magazines to which I have subscriptions (Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Time, Scientific American and Smithsonian) are all available in Newsstand, and it is a much better experience than PDF format.

That said, there is room for improvement

Magazines are ephemeral. One of the great things about them is that I could cut out clippings and save them (for story ideas, research, or to send to friends) back when I got paper copies. I also had no qualms about highlighting passages or jotting notes in the margins. This is something that still needs a good deal of improvement when it comes to electronic versions of magazines.

PDF versions can be annotated, if you have the software installed to do so. Evernote makes this pretty easy for normal PDFs, but it can’t perform updates on encrypted PDFs, which is how the Scientific American came.

The Kindle app allows you to highlight and annotate books, but not magazines.

And so far, I haven’t found a way to annotate magazine articles in Newsstand. At least, there is no built-in functionality for this. It is possible to do. You can grab a screenshot, and annotate the image, but it is a bit time consuming. It should be possible to annotate magazines from directly within the Newsstand application. It should be easy to clip articles for personal reference. There is definitely room for improvement.

It seems to me that, given the Newsstand format of the magazine is so well designed for the iPad, there should be ways of identifying specific articles, and bookmarking them, for easy access later on. This might be a intermediate step on the way to clipping. I imagine, however, that part of the roadblock is that Newsstand essentially aggregates unique “apps” for each magazine, and the apps themselves a proprietary, making it difficult to come up with a universal e-magazine annotation model. I think such a model would be extraordinarily useful.

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