Magazines and the iPad: How to Fix the Problems

I love magazines. There’s nothing quite like the experience of opening up the mailbox and getting your latest issue of your favorite publication, then spending a few hours pouring through the glossy pages and learning new things.

Of course, print media has been in trouble for years now, and everyone is trying to figure out how to make more cash. The iPad was once considered the savior for the print world, but at the moment the results are less than sparkling. How could that be? The iPad offered so much promise?

I”ll tell you why: Print media doesn’t get it. They don’t understand what makes the iPad such a unique device and how to take advantage of all its technology to make their print magazine so much better. What do they do to fix the problem? Let’s take a look and see what magazines are doing right, and what they’re doing wrong.

First, a Little Background

Let me take a moment to explain who I am so that you understand where I’m basing my opinions. I started writing for print media in 2000, working mostly with automotive titles, and took up photography shortly thereafter. In 2008, I took a job as a copy editor, where I edited four national publications, and rose to the rank of senior copy editor.

Around that time I became the executive editor of a regional publication, and about a year later, I became the editor in chief of another regional publication. We took that book national, and changed the game with advertising revenue as well. I’ve worked with creating print schedules, organizing a publication from scratch and worked closely with designers to get the final product perfect.

All that said, I have never worked for a huge publication like a Vogue or Esquire, so some of my thoughts on the subject may not fit perfectly in line with huge corporate media structures. Frankly though, I think that helps me think a bit more grassroots about the problem, instead of making everything bigger than it should be.

Going From Print to iPad

The real issue with the iPad comes from a design perspective. When you’re designing a magazine, you create a pagination for the book, which is a fancy way of saying that you place the ads and the editorial in the best order possible for readability, maximum exposure for advertisers, and to create an overall look for the book.

Each page is designed on software, usually Adobe InDesign, Quark or something similar, then sent in a hi-rez PDF to the printer so they can print the book. These PDF files can be pretty large, particularly with heavy images, so an entire magazine can easily take up a few hundred megabytes of space.

But with the iPad, everything needs to be designed twice. Each page has to be viewed from a landscape and a portrait perspective, depending on how the iPad is held. That means twice the work for each page, and therefore, each magazine. That’s tough.

To make it easier, publishers have been working with Adobe to create better options. From what I’ve been reading and hearing from my design friends, not only is the software expensive and complex to use, but it still outputs a PDF that takes a few hundred megabytes of storage on your device. If you’ve got a 16 GB iPad, you could fill it up with magazines with very little effort. So how do you fix the design issue and yet keep a solid quality issue?

Deconstructing the Process

To find out, let’s do something that great chefs do called deconstruction. It’s where the chef takes a common food item — a grilled cheese sandwich, perhaps — and breaks it down to its key elements, the components which make the meal so great. Maybe they take the starchiness of the white bread, mix it with an amazing cheese and turn the old standby sandwich into an amazing soup, or a full course meal. So what makes print media popular?

  1. Images – Big, beautiful images.
  2. Quality – in-depth writing not always available on the web.
  3. Legitimacy
  4. Ease of use
  5. Portability

Ok, step by step, here we go.

1. Images

Today’s modern magazine goes from print to digital in one easy step: PDFs. Those same files can be sent to companies like Zinio to go on the iPad, but then they’re slow to load, static pages with nothing dynamic about them. You can’t search a magazine for a key phrase, like if you just wanted to search the latest issue of Time to find all the articles about Obama.

Plus, it locks you into a portrait view when tablet owners expect the images to move when they move their device to landscape mode. The beautiful images often become garbled messes that look like a first-year design student smashed it together.

Keep your dynamic images, but make them interactive. Many freelancers today work with still and video photography, so there’s no reason not to tap that resource. Setup a fashion shoot, but instead of using one camera, setup 12-15 in a Matrix-esque display so the final HTML5 result is an image you can spin by dragging a slider. Make each still image just one frame in a video, then put in a 30-second clip that’s activated by pushing play. Those images have to become fluid and vivid, and not just stuck to the page. Wired does this pretty well, so follow their example.

2. Quality

Keep writing long form stories, because print media is not about telling the news. You’ll never be able to keep up with the web, so stop trying. Instead, tell the stories that no blogger wants to write for $10/post, putting out 3,000-5,000-word masterpieces that people want to read.

Make it searchable. Ditch the PDF format and code each issue directly, or figure out a way to make each page a searchable PDF instead of a static image. If you want an advantage, make it so readers can hunt for what they want now, not scroll through the pages to try to find something on their own.

3. Legitimacy

Anyone can write 5,000 words on the web, but being a published writer in a legit publication is something else entirely. A magazine on the iPad should have the same authority as your physical magazine, so push those boundaries.

Insert video feeds from the website for the latest news. Add updates to the story on the fly with links that take you to an in-app browser. Let people comment on the articles just like on the web, to create a community of people who follow your work.

4. Ease of Use

Before the iPad even existed, people were mocking up videos of how cool it could be to read a magazine on a tablet. Somewhere in the mix, they decided that to read a multi-page article you should flip up and down on the tablet, but to go to the next page, you flip left to right. Now everyone does it, and it sucks.

By putting interactive ads, images and articles on your site, you play around with how people move the page. And if I’m flipping from side to side to get to the next article, I may accidentally trigger a video, or move an image in an advertisement. Going up and down is counter-intuitive. I don’t care how many up and down arrows there are, forget that idea. Make it paginate like a regular book, and just flip from page to page.

Why is that a problem? Let’s go back to the Wired example, because it’s the gold standard in iPad magazines right now. Scrolling up and down on an article, then to the left or right, allows you to easily move between pages. But the next time you’re flipping from left to right, the scrolled article stays in its previous position, which could be the fourth page in a six-page piece. It’s confusing to go from a Lexus ad, to page four in an article, then to a new article, because you don’t know where you sit.

Stop the up and down crap, and keep it left to right. Make it easy, not fancy for fancy’s sake.

5. Portability

It’s hard not to appreciate the iPad for portability, so take advantage of it. People want to buy the magazine and read it at an airport, hotel or frankly, on the can. If it takes 5 minutes to download and install — as happened to me with the latest issue of Wired — then I’ve lost interest. I have to put down the iPad and walk away, because I can’t just read it and go. There’s no portability and “instant on” advantage with the iPad if it takes time to download. At the bare minimum, download in the background while I start reading the book.

Also, stop the sign-in stuff. Multiple magazines require me to sign in with my iTunes ID before even looking at the magazine, which makes me wonder why it’s necessary. Make it an offline deal, where I can read the book wherever and whenever I want, even if I don’t have an Internet connection.

Finally, Wired nailed this one just recently: One subscription pays for the print and tablet versions. No paying for multiple versions, ever, and that needs to be a standard.

Putting It All Together

So what’s the answer to solving all of these problems? It’s simple. Go back to the web, and format everything in HTML. That gives you multiple advantages: Design can be fluid using HTML5 elements, and you can still use dynamic images and videos built into the page.

You don’t have to format things multiple times just to change platforms, so your magazines work on ALL tablets, not just the iPad. And finally, it means that you’ll have a legit way to show your magazine on your website, without having to reinput individual articles each time.

Now yes, this is going to cost some money, and you will have to restructure some of your workforce. But this is our generation’s big transition, like from radio to movies, and from silent movies to talkies. If you want your magazine to survive in this day and age, it needs to be on every tablet possible and on the web. With some smart web guys and a bit of work, you can have that in just a few months.