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Magazines struggle to cross the digital divide

Even some publishers of technology-focused content are in a pickle over how best to design and serve up content electronically. Oftentimes, there's not an "app for that."

Print publishers have a long, love-hate relationship with electronic media, dating back to the dawn of the internet. Websites freed up content in ways that magazine and newspaper publishers either didn't know how to address or just didn't address -- that is, until ad revenue and subscriptions started to fall precipitously.

But tablets held great promise to change that, writes Jason Pontin, editor in chief of Technology Review, the tech-focused monthly magazine published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), because applications could serve up content designed in a way that mimics print, while adding new features. No longer would publishers be bound by the structure and limitations of HTML and browsers. Plus, apps could generate new revenue, through single issues of the periodical via iTunes, or through new types of advertisements. Pontin writes:

By the time Apple released the iPad in April of 2010, just four months after Steve Jobs first announced his "magical and revolutionary" new machines in San Francisco, traditional publishers had been overtaken by a collective delusion. They believed that mobile computers with large, colorful screens, such as the iPad, iPhone, and similar devices using Google's Android software, would allow them to unwind their unhappy histories with the Internet.

But he spends the rest of his essay describing how and why serving up content on mobile devices (tablets as well as mobile phones) has thus far failed to meet the hype. Most of the issues he lists are business based. For example, Apple's fees erased publisher's margins for selling single issues on iTunes, and selling access outside of iTunes was inconvenient for many readers. The cost of developing apps, at least in Tech Review's case, were too high.

But many are rooted in design. Pontin writes:

[Publishers] allowed themselves to be convinced that producing editorial content for the apps and developing the apps themselves would be simple. Software vendors like Adobe promised that publishers could easily transfer editorial created on print copy management systems like Adobe InDesign and InCopy directly to the apps. As for software development ... well, how hard was that? Most publishers had Web development departments: let the nerds build the apps.

Turns out, magazines and newspapers hadn't hired the right kinds of nerds. Apps required programming skills that their web development department lacked. But even more vexing was the fact that different devices required different iterations of the apps, and even the seemingly simple issue of shifting from landscape to vertical views of content created design headaches. Magazines are forced to churn out multiple -- up to six, says Pontin -- different versions of their products, in formats ranging from print to tablet to phone to HTML (for the pub's website).

But the most cringe-inducing aspect of the evolution of the app? Readers don't really like them. He points to the groves of tablet owners who read publications on their respective websites, rather than buy and down the "extravagantly produced digital replicas" the pubs produced. An app might look pretty, but it doesn't lend itself to the easy navigation, through links, that we've grown accustomed to on websites.

The design answer to these problems may be found, ironically enough, back where magazines first dropped their digital anchors. The Financial Times ditched its apps and is instead using HTML5, the most modern and format-friendly version of the internet's backbone programming language, to serve up its content online.

Pontin says Tech Review has plans to do the same.

Certainly, the ultimate solution to print publishers' woes over digital content isn't to simply revert back to their websites -- as many of the more than 100 commenters to the Pontin's essay attest. And unsurprisingly, digital publishing vendors are rushing to re-frame his argument. Still, there are some teachable moments in Pontin's very confessional essay. The media landscape in hard to navigate. Sometimes, there's not actually an "app for that."

Via: Technology Review

Image: Flickr/quinn.anya

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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