The Magazine: Finally a Reason to Use Newsstand

My mother always comes up with these get-rich quick ideas whenever I’m looking for new work. Early last summer, when I found myself in such a predicament, she came up to me with this “great business model” she’d been speaking to somebody on the phone about: a distribution model in which I, as a third-party vendor of sorts, contact doctors’ offices and laundromats and other such businesses and sell them advertising-heavy magazines at “discounted” rates. I get to keep a big portion of the cut, pay for some of the print cost for smaller, local publications, and get to tour the city a lot looking for crummy joints who might be interested in my sales pitch.

I told her that there was no way I’d get involved in that — as far as I was concerned, people were all reading the news on their smartphones and tablets. And I was certain that magazines would become digitally replaced as soon as somebody figured out the best way to format a magazine for such devices. I told her I was tempted to get in on it and make a curated news app myself, just so I could prove to her that the market for paper magazines was seriously diminishing by comparison.

Well, Marco Arment beat me to it and his newest app, fittingly (and maybe a little egotistically) named The Magazine, has blown me away.
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Finally Putting the Newsstand to Good Use

If anybody understands the digital revolution of paper, it’s Marco Arment. The developer is famous for Instapaper (still my favourite read it later service, and easily the most sophisticated), and more or less created an app genre that we didn’t know existed by solving a problem we barely realized was there. And now I’m hooked on the concept. Arment has a penchant for beautiful typography and clean design, and knows how to create sophisticated algorithms that make complicated things look beautifully simple.

Marco's newest app features an unsurprisingly clean and simple, but beautiful, design.

Marco’s newest app features an unsurprisingly clean and simple, but beautiful, design.

You won’t necessarily appreciate what makes The Magazine great unless you’ve tried out other magazines on the iPad. Although some of them are cool (and multimedia features are always interesting), they are often not Retina-enabled and as a result look terrible. And it’s more or less like reading through a PDF with embedded video and audio. There’s no compelling reason to read them on my iPad instead of reading the paper copy that came in the mail. And reading a magazine like National Geographic without Retina resolution seemed like such a waste.

Marco’s app strips out all of the multimedia, although he does say there may be the occasional picture. Not unlike Instapaper, the focus here is solely on the text. You can tap on embedded notes to bring up info bubbles that might contain footnotes, a brief link summary or an author’s bio. You can select text and define it or copy it before pasting it elsewhere. You can save the articles to Instapaper (but the app is, not surprisingly, incompatible with competitors like Pocket or Readability).

The only available "read it later" service is Instapaper, but the other sharing options are a nice touch.

The only available “read it later” service is Instapaper, but the other sharing options are a nice touch.

Designing the Future of Digital Magazines

The user interface for this is simple and drop-dead gorgeous. I really can’t give Marco enough credit here. This is making design choices that effectively make a product so simple and intuitive that it doesn’t seem like there was any other possible way to make it. When a design feels this obvious, you know it really wasn’t.

Maybe I'm too picky, but this is the first high-constrast night reading feature I've ever liked.

Maybe I’m too picky, but this is the first high-constrast night reading feature I’ve ever liked.

Consider the night mode as an example: often, this is simply a black screen with white text. Marco has reconsidered even that simple notion and the text is now a blue colour that is simply much easier on the eyes. When you read a footnote or a summary of an external link (pictured above), the text is white instead of blue for additional contrast. That kind of minor refinement is ever-present; even footnotes and links have been reconsidered as to how they should be displayed. Refinement like this is what separates big boys from minor players, and make no mistake, Marco Arment is in the big leagues.

Text is easy to read and the font is beautiful. It’s the perfect size for me (although that is adjustable), and it feels like you’re reading the printed page. If there’s one gripe I have, it’s that I would like a real fullscreen mode while I read. I don’t want to see the battery level of my iPad or what time it is; I just want to read. Instapaper is full-screen, and the fact that this feature is missing in The Magazine might be a limitation imposed on Newsstand apps by Apple instead of from Marco himself. I can’t say for a certainty, but it seems an odd (albeit minor) exclusion in what is otherwise perfectly executed, down to the smallest and most trivial detail.

I love the pop-up views for external links.

I love the pop-up views for external links.

The Content Is What Matters

Design is one thing, but the content is another. Marco’s app is for technology lovers. Every two weeks, there will be four long-form articles published about technology. I don’t think you should expect any app reviews in there, but you can expect articles that delve deep into what technology does for us in its most complex and most basic forms. Marco is now a self-declared editor. His rules about article ownership are very liberal, and I could see a lot of authors being attracted to the format.

A quick swipe to the left reveals the table of contents for each issue.

A quick swipe to the left reveals the table of contents for each issue.

Reviewing the writing is hard because quality could fluctuate (and likely will) from issue to issue, but it should be said that if the first issue is indicative of overall future quality, the writing is superb. There’s a certain lightness to the articles; they’re not too long, too short or too serious. That being said, it’s easy to spend quality time reading them. The articles all feature embedded links that take you to the web for further reading (gratefully, Marco does not have an Instapaper mobilizer for webpages built into the app). It’s easy to spend just a little time or a lot of time going through Arment’s work, depending on how much you feel like reading.

The Overall Experience

Most developers are happy if they strike gold once. Marco is the opposite. He’s in relentless pursuit of the next great idea, and it shows in The Magazine. The article quality is great and easily worth the $2 monthly subscription; this is the best iPad reading experience to come along since Instapaper. This is a new way of publishing a magazine, but I hope it has the brightest of futures.

The first issue includes articles about things like baseball and divorce as well as tech, but every article is written from the perspective of people who are in love with technology. They love the way it enhances our everyday lives and have nothing but respect for its power. This is the same sort of loving admiration that The Magazine was made with. It’s an idea I can’t believe I didn’t come up with first, and it gets my highest recommendation.


Marco Arment's newest app takes Newsstand to the places Apple always promised us it would go.

  • Rob

    Other, possibly better, reasons to use Newstand: The Economist, New York Times, Automobile, Peleton.

  • Copper

    The Content is Everything? Since when are photos/ illustrations/ diagrams/ multimedia/ etc. not content? I’m not saying that what is being done with The Magazine doesn’t have its merit. Nor am I saying that everyone else is getting it right (though I am more and more surprised, as time goes on, who is, and my iPad 2 doesn’t have the retina display issues). But when you are creating a periodical your format and media should serve the content. A picture worth a thousand words. Sticking to text only (with the possibility of the occasional picture as mentioned) on the sake of principal is at best affectatious and at worst damaging. Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll be flipping through some vintage issues of LIFE.

  • Omar Kamel

    Copper – since the magazine is curated, you can rest assured that the content will be selected according to the format of the magazine. Meaning that I doubt Marco will pick articles in which photographs or videos are essential and then strip them of the visual content! The whole point, as I understand it, is to focus on the written word. So I’m sorry to say your criticism doesn’t make sense, or you’ve misunderstood the nature of the app. This is not Instapaper, nor does it attempt to be. Calm down :)

    • Copper

      It was an awfully phrased response, and I deserved to be called out on it. I was both tired and in a hurry, and it is a bad combination. That being said, I stand by the point I was trying to make.

      I actually very much like what I have seen of the app thus far, and what Marco is doing and has done in the past. However, I had the idea that the magazine was (from the iTunes description) “A magazine for people who love [x, y, and z] we deliver meaningful editorial and big-picture articles.” I worry anytime I see design dictating content instead of the other way around. Curating articles that can be presented, written word only, is exactly that — an artificial content limitation imposed by an arbitrary design decision.

      Yes, it can absolutely be done well, and from the single issue I’ve seen has been.

      The review states, correctly, that content is what matters (didn’t that previously say “Content is everything?”, I’m sure I didn’t pull that out of thin air), but starts with design. When finally getting to content it notes that it is hard to review writing that could fluctuate. I feel that an app that should be all about the content, if the content can’t be reviewed, might deserve less than a perfect score.

      Content is, in fact what matters, and design should follow. For the app? Maybe not, that is Marco’s decision. But maybe a little bit more for the metrics by which we judge it.