The Financial Times in mid-air

In the dog days of August, about two weeks ago, Tyler Brûlé found himself in Australia with some cancelled appointment and decided that it was time to get home to London, earlier than he had planned:

After a layover in Singapore, I boarded the last British Airways service up to London and settled in for the 12-ish hour flight. I asked the crew for a copy of the FT’s weekday edition, and a few minutes later the BA staffer returned with a nicely folded bundle of pink paper.

“Oh but it’s the Tuesday edition,” I said, with some surprise. “Do you have today’s, by chance?”

“I’m sorry, let me check but I don’t think so,” the flight attendant replied. “I’ll be right back.”

A couple of minutes passed and the woman returned empty-handed. “It seems we only load the papers in London,” she explained. “I guess you can’t get this particular paper in Singapore.” At this moment it’s hard to say what face I pulled but I know I sat upright and leaned forward and into the aisle slightly. In a very low voice, I started to explain the problem with this particular scenario. “This paper is, in fact, printed locally and, as it’s close to midnight on Wednesday, the Thursday edition is almost available. Don’t you think you should be loading papers locally? Just like you do food and jet-fuel?” The Joy of a Clear Diary

This experience does pose a few questions for those of us who believe in a digital future for magazines and newspapers.

It really should be much easier to read a newspaper digitally on your iPad in the aircraft cabin than to get a printed copy of the magazine or newspaper loaded locally like the food and jet-fuel. But the only currently guaranteed and practical way in which travellers can get digital magazines to read on the long flight from Singapore to London is to have loaded the app version before you set off and made sure that you sync it to the device.

Providing your passengers (especially your business class passengers) with a top quality selection of magazines and newspapers and magazines should still be a premium part of the package. It should be easy to set up a system which will supply travellers with hundreds of magazines to read whilst they are in mid-air. Providing this service can be both a profitable service for the periodicals and a promotional opportunity.

There are indeed such systems for digital magazines and newspapers, and one will find them at business lounges and sometimes in mid-air. Why are they not more successful? One reason may be that the companies that provide these digital periodical reading systems are building a proprietary reading environment. Reading a digital magazine in mid air should be a very similar experience to reading the digital magazine on an iPad. Another related problem is that by and large magazines and newspapers are each inventing largely proprietary and unique delivery methods for their digital editions. There has to be some standardisation. There really ought to be a way of reading an iPad app magazine in flight, on a temporary basis (as a guest of Emirates or Lufthansa) without having to learn six different reading models for six different magazines and newspapers.

There are clearly some problems to be solved here, but it is still somewhat strange that Tyler Brûlé did not ask why there is not already a much better digital reading solution for the problem he identifies. Brûlé is the publisher and editor of Monocle which would be a great magazine to have in one’s hands on most long haul flights. Personally I would much rather have it in hand on my iPad then any other way. When Tyler Brûlé also thinks that the digital solution is the obvious one to the problem he has in getting hold of a current copy of the Financial Times, the magazine industry will be confident of its digital future. Newspapers need this digital solution even more than magazines but magazines have a lot of catching up to do.