Digital Magazines Emerge—But Glossy Paper Publishers Haven’t Turned the Page on the Past

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$2.99 iPhone version of its December 2009 “Man of the Year” issue—or rather, part of the issue, as most of the articles seem to have been omitted in favor of photos (including timeless ones of Paul Rudd in a pink bathrobe, Twitter’s Evan Williams and Biz Stone tweeting behind each other’s backs, and the new Captain Kirk flying a paper Starship Enterprise).

The GQ iPhone "Man of the Year" Issue on iPhone -- Twitter's Biz Stone (L) and Evan Williams (R)The only interesting twist in the GQ app is that if you hold the phone vertically, you get a scrolling table of contents and Web-style article pages, and if you hold it horizontally, you get tiny facsimiles of the corresponding pages in the print magazine. You can double-tap the screen to zoom and navigate between pages by flicking. Alas, I couldn’t get all the way through the magazine, as the app kept crashing on me.

A few digital publications are getting slightly more creative. Jettison Quarterly, a Flash-based online periodical focused on the Chicago arts and culture scene, still has the goofy Zmags-style page turn animations, but it veers away from the literal magazine metaphor in a few respects. For example, it uses fonts that are sufficiently large that you don’t have to zoom in to read the text. And it usually plasters words and images right over the gutter, the area around the fold in a traditional magazine spread.

However, Jettison is inconsistent on this score—and the page turn animation is built around the premise that there is a fold, meaning the readers are never quite sure what they’re meant to be looking at. Is it a print spread? A Web page? A billboard? It’s odd to see Jettison‘s designers confining themselves to the old paper metaphors when the magazine doesn’t even have a print edition.

Flyp - A Sample SpreadFlyp, a multimedia publication based in New York, is taking more chances. It’s still guided by the magazine spread metaphor (and it’s still got the goofy page-turn animations!) but its tagline—“More than a magazine”—is accurate. Flyp‘s creators aren’t just churning out the standard text and photos. There’s also audio, video, and animated Flash infographics, and the feature packages come with Hollywood-grade video introductions—the intro to Flyp‘s piece on end-of-life care is a nice example.

I like what Flyp‘s designers are doing so far because they’re not slavishly imitating print magazines. Rather, the publication uses new media to carve out a space analogous to, not the same as, the one that magazines inhabit in the print world.

What do I mean by that? I think there are a few fundamental things that set magazines apart from newspapers. One is the tone and intent of the articles: A little less rushed and ephemeral, a little more synthetic, analytical, and writerly. Another is the imagery—especially large-format photography and things like charts and maps. Then there’s the design, meaning the way text and images are juxtaposed, and the way typography itself is used as a graphical element. In the hands of good editors and designers, these things can be brought together to create an immersive experience that makes full use of the possibilities of print—the “affordances” of the paper medium, as an interaction designer might put it.

But if you just transplant that same experience from paper onto a screen, the way Zmags and Zinio do, you create something that immediately feels stunted and incomplete, because digital environments provide different affordances from paper. (You can scroll an online article up or down infinitely without ever having to “turn” a page, to name just one.)

Flyp‘s articles are well written and serious, and they integrate story material with photos, videos, and animation in a way that feels inviting, not imposing or forced. (This piece about Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, the married architect/designer couple behind the new Institute of Contemporary Art building in Boston, is especially good.) With Flyp, you get to explore a subject at your own pace in a guided setting. You aren’t overwhelmed with data, but since the whole thing is running inside a browser window, Google is only a click away. The publication hasn’t … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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4 responses to “Digital Magazines Emerge—But Glossy Paper Publishers Haven’t Turned the Page on the Past”

  1. Jules PieriJules says:

    Oh I feel like a dinosaur when I read an article like this….I love my paper magazines. I don’t want to read them on a computer. My computer gives me carpal tunnel syndrome. My magazines give me a smile.

    More than that, when I have a paper version it is much quicker for me to grasp the full content of the magazine and I am likely to read more broadly, rather than selectively. That is what I want from my media….to broaden my knowledge and perspectives.

    Perhaps the new formats you highlight will solve all those problems for me (except the carpal tunnel aches).

    I guess you caught me at a tough moment, given that my favorite magazine, ID (formerly Industrial Design, now International Design) just announced its own demise. I became worried about that magazine when I tried to share an article from it this summer and found that the online version was a whole issue behind, weeks after I got my print version. THAT’s when I did want the digital version and I remember grumbling about whatever arcane practice led them to delay digital distribution.

    Anyway, thanks for broadening my perspective today….I will try and have an open mind about these new formats.

  2. Hi Wade,

    It’s a really interesting post. I agree with you about that most digital magazines are just print formats placed into an online page turning tool which offer no real benefit apart from perhaps basic search within each issue.

    We do quite a bit of conversion of print into digital magazines for publisher clients in the UK. However, we tag each article on the page with another resource which might be a document, video, or a podcast.

    We also build in search capabilities to enable search on related articles in the archive of each magazine. This is not what most online magazines offer and limits their appeal to customers.

    Publishers also benefit from being able to resell their back list more easily.

    Thanks again.

  3. Hi Wade

    Interesting article and you raise some valid points about the lack of innovation within this new medium. It’s true that there aren’t really many digital magazines that are fully exploiting what can be done using the digital setup.

    I work for a publishing company and have this year been tasked with launching and promoting digital versions of our titles. Due to the number of titles we have and a lack of resource to focus on producing and integrating multimedia content, the majority of our issues are going out as direct print replicas. While I agree that there is scope to do a lot with the format, i have noticed that a lot of our digital readers are happy with the basic print replica setup and are more focused on getting the same content as they would with the printed magazine but for a cheaper price and in a more convenient way.

    Having said that, we have produced a few interactive digital supplements which have integrated video, podcasts and Flash animation and these are a lot more fun to both work on and look at as a reader.