The Economist’s Economical and Effective iPad App

And having played with it a bit, I would say that it is a very nice production. Take a look at it here.

There are four aspects to the Economist app that I particularly like:

  1. It has been delivered as a complementary (ie free) offering to all existing subscribers. Exact Editions has been helping magazine publishers to make this bridge to current print subscribers for a while, but a lot of industry experts seem to think that this is something very difficult to do, or somehow not allowed by Apple’s e-commerce system, or just generally impossible. Since the Economist is now doing this with no trouble at all (the sign up was very easy, and you only need to do it once — as is the case with Exact Editions’ universal subscriptions) perhaps we will now no longer read claims that it is not feasible to do this. There will be followers……
  2. The Economist delivers all its six editions through the same app, and the user can select which ‘regional edition’ she wishes to receive. That is a very good plan, simple and in a sense generous. But a generosity which costs the publisher nothing (once it is decided, as it ought to be decided, that all the editions are deserving of a digital service).
  3. The Economist app delivers the individual stories clearly and well, with re-sizable type, and pictures and diagrams in place. Achieving this smoothly and with consistently good results is not easy and must have involved planning a fair degree of integration between editorial work-flow and the app delivery framework. Well done. I also recommend the Economist for choosing a deployment for the iPad which, I am fairly sure, can be easily adapted to other digital form factors that are surely coming. I doubt that the design and editorial process involved in producing the app in its variant forms is onerous, on an ongoing basis. So the planning and integration will be a good investment.
  4. I especially like that The Economist does not try to do too much, or to introduce multi-media and fancy additional features at this stage. This is an app for the weekly publication, not for the web site. The RSS feeds do not clutter up the app, though they can still be found on the web service, of course. The app will be ignored by some so-called experts for not being more ambitious and daring as a publishing innovation. But they have chosen the correct path: get the basic magazine up and running and then take it from there. It will not be difficult for them to introduce more interactivity into the framework they have built.

What is there not to like? Since I am very much in favour of the Economist’s app these hesitations or questions, are not intended to be dismissive of what they have achieved:

  1. The Economist app is what I would call a good ‘ebook’ style of digital edition. The format and design quality of the original publication is mostly lost. Page numbers, and paginated format has gone. The print ads have gone (if I want to apply to be Director General of the World Water Council I will need to go to the print edition). The internal cross references are also gone, and that matters. Furthermore, the user no longer has a simple equivalence between the print edition and the digital edition. This dissonance imposes a bigger cognitive overhead than is generally accepted.
  2. There is as yet no search and no archive, one guesses that these features will be added. Perhaps they should really be there already.
  3. The navigation possibilities with the app are not as rich as in many other magazine apps. The hierarchical order of the magazine has been preserved and can be rapidly flipped, but I was looking for a ‘scrubber bar’, to be found in most magazine apps, or a ‘page flow’ widget such as is found in Exact Editions apps.
  4. The Economist’s ebook style solution works well for the Economist (which is a more text heavy ‘magazine’ than most). But I doubt that the same process will work for a very heavily illustrated and page-beautiful magazine. The Economist calls itself a ‘newspaper’ and I feel that its app solution is better suited to a serious newspaper than to the majority of magazines, where considered layout and clever illustration is a key element in the pleasure of the reading experience.
  5. Furthermore the Economist does not have the benefit of being a platform solution. The Economist is a big enough and a good enough magazine to contemplate building its own solution, but many advantages will come from working with a raft of similarly designed offerings. For most magazines that is an important consideration.
  6. Although, I applaud the decision not to launch with many multimedia bells and interactive whistles, the digital magazine is very short of linkage. Linkage to the web and linkage to other information resources that matter to readers. The Economist app will be better, much better, when there is more.

The Economist have produced a good solution for their loyal, influential, and large readership. They have also shown the magazine industry that developing a solution for your existing subscribers is an important first step. They have not yet shown how great an iPad magazine could be, but those steps are in the future and they have made a good start. Rival publishers should take note and take stock.

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