Digital Reading Room: A tale of three magazines

[As tablets get more powerful, with more memory and sharper-looking screens, their apps are getting a makeover. Increasingly, mobile apps employ multimedia—combining words, pictures, audio, and video—in new and interesting ways. In our Digital Reading Room series, we’ll look at some eye-catching multimedia apps and tell you which ones deserve a place on your mobile device.]

It’s been nearly a year-and-a-half since Newsstand became an (undeletable) mainstay of Apple’s iOS, but publishers are still looking to get a grip on this built-in app that houses magazines and other periodicals. Recently, a pair of long-established publications made the leap to Newsstand, and what they’ve done—or left undone—clearly illustrates the diversity of approaches to digital publishing. Meanwhile, a new iPad-only sports periodical shows why established publishers who are slow to adapt to digital may face some threats from smaller outfits willing to invest the time, effort, and money to produce interactive, multimedia offerings that truly engage the reader.

Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone’s "All the News that Fits" slogan doesn’t apply to its clumsy in-app presentations of its own Web pages, which are cut off on the left hand side—neither scrolling left nor resizing the page solves the problem.

The music industry was dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age, thanks to financial losses caused by illegal downloads. Now, Rolling Stone, the once-iconic music magazine, has followed suit with a dedicated iPad app—also kicking and screaming. And like most mainstream music labels when they entered the arena, the magazine offers little more than a digitized replica of an already-existing product.

This is no knock on the content of the publication—while a shadow of its former self, Rolling Stone still offers a compelling mix of pop culture and music news, gossip, in-depth feature stories, and sometimes excellent long-form journalism. It is a knock on the iPad version, however, which will cost you even if you already have a print subscription.

Rolling Stone’s Newsstand version is little more than a duplicate of the printed Rolling Stone, with some links thrown in. It’s an unimaginative, and sometimes inept, presentation. For example, you’re limited to viewing both the magazine itself and linked online material in portrait mode only. (As a result, when you tap on a link to a RollingStone.com Web page, the in-app view presents only part of the page, and you can’t resize it or scroll to see what you’re missing.) Videos hosted on other websites, such as YouTube and Vimeo, can only be viewed in portrait mode, as well.

There are also links to music referred to in the publication, but the links lack consistency. Some enable you to listen to 30-second snippets (retrieved from the iTunes Store) from within the app; others link to the iTunes Store so you can purchase the song; still others link to SoundCloud, Vimeo, and YouTube. (The latter Web links enable you to listen to the entire song, at least.) Some songs that weren’t available on iTunes when the iPad version of the issue was released became available within a week or so, yet Rolling Stone did not update the Newsstand publication to indicate this. (Many other Newsstand publications can and do offer updates.)

Prince’s new single, ‘Screwdriver,’ was released on iTunes on February 4, but Rolling Stone chose not to update its Newsstand version to provide a link to buy the song when it became available.

Worst of all, even subscribers to the printed version of the magazine will have to pay a second time to get a digital version of only slightly augmented content. Unlike many other Newsstand offerings, there’s no discount or free version offered to print subscribers of Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone design director Joseph Hutchinson recently told CITEworld that he designed the iPad version in his spare time. According to that same article, Rolling Stone is ramping up for regular iPad production by “bringing on a regular freelancer on board.” One interpretation of that statement: We’ll put it out, but don’t expect much.

A yearly subscription to Rolling Stone on the iPad costs $20, which is the same you’ll pay if you subscribe to the print version via Amazon and many other magazine resellers. You do get a one-month free trial with the digital version, though.

Where to Get It: Free; ($5, single issue; $2, monthly subscription; $20, yearly subscription); iOS App Store

The Verdict: Save some pixels and get the print version.

The New Republic

A 1927 Robert Frost poem reprinted in the Feb. 25, 2013 issue of The New Republic includes a link to this New Republic Web page. What’s notable is that the page, viewed from within the Newsstand app, is easy to read while enabling you to change the text size and listen to a professionally-narrated audio version of the article as well.

In contrast to Rolling Stone, but like many other magazines, if you subscribe to the print edition of The New Republic (which costs $35 per year), you get the iPad version for free.

Chris Hughes, the magazine’s publisher and editor-in-chief writes on the magazine’s website and in the first iPad issue:

In 2013, The New Republic can no longer be just a magazine. We are a media company that produces live events featuring our staff and other experts, a responsive website designed for social conversations and a mobile life, audio versions of all of our work, a cutting-edge tablet app, and, of course, 20 print issues a year. We provide access to all of our products for one price to make it as simple as possible to subscribe.

In many ways, The New Republic’s website is more interesting and provides more utility than the digital magazine. For example, the website offers audio versions of all stories read by the authors, relevant links embedded in articles (which weren’t available in the digital issue I read), text-only versions of stories, and an auto-synching feature that enables you to start reading an article on one device and pick it up on another where you left off. These features also work in the mobile version of Safari and are available to subscribers and non-subscribers, at least for the time being.

Overall, The New Republic’s digital overhaul is impressive, and the iPad version of the magazine is very good, including some interactive elements (some nifty animations and a brief video in the first two issues). When you pay to subscribe (whether you choose to receive the print or iPad edition or both) and register for the website, you’re getting real value for your money.

Where to Get It: Free ($3, single issue; $35, an annual subscription); iOS App Store

The Verdict: A definite download for print subscribers. Otherwise, check out the website first.

MVP Magazine

Typical of entries in its iPad-only publication, MVP Magazine’s article on the Chicago Cubs new spring training facility includes many well-labeled interactive elements—in this case, several slides, scrollable text, a link to a video on MVP’s YouTube channel, and a pop-up PDF.

MVP Magazine is a new, digital-only national sports periodical, and both its content and presentation are simply superb. It’s designed specifically for the iPad, and includes an wide array of compelling articles. Among the nine features in the first issue are stories on the (possible) demise of the NFL, the Cubs new spring training facility, legendary amateur wrestler and coach Dan Gable, and “the world’s first floating golf course.”

Each article includes one or more interactive elements, such as in-app audio and video, slideshows, and pop-up text and graphics. MVP Magazine’s interactive elements usually include clear instructions (Swipe Picture, Scroll Down, and Tap for More Details, just to give some examples). Some—but not enough—Newsstand publications provide this level of instruction as well.

If there’s a downside to the app, it’s that it has yet to establish to a regular publishing schedule. The magazine is supposed to come out six times a year. The first issue, which can be downloaded for free, came out in October; a second issue, with a scheduled first quarter publishing date, has yet to arrive. It will be encouraging to see MVP appear with some regularity.

Where to Get It: Free ($6 for a yearly subscription); iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definite download.

News and Notes

The Beatles Story, an audio-enhanced eight-part comic book series on the Fab Four, is an impressive production, with a lively look and sound. Too bad the facts get in the way. On the third page, it’s implied that John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi bought him his first guitar for £17; on the fourth page, it’s stated that Paul McCartney is right handed. It doesn’t take a lot of research to know that Lennon’s mother, Julia, bought him his first guitar for about £11. (Mimi’s purchase came later.) It takes a fair amount of foolishness (and not even a Google search effort) to believe that McCartney is a right-hander—an old falsehood that had its origins in the “Paul is Dead” hoax.

Near the end of January, Play Creatividad made good on its promise to add “The Raven” to its outstanding iPoe 2 app, completing the second volume of its innovative, interactive presentation of Poe’s stories.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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