The coming failure of digital periodicals

The best thing that can be said about the dead-tree era of publishing that sustained the world for a few centuries was the relative ease-of-use and standardization in operating the delivery mechanism — the book, newspaper, or magazine. Sentences began on the left, went to the right (in the West), eyes moved from to bottom, and when you finished the page you turned it. Need to remember a place? Dog ear the page or use a bookmark of some sort. Need to annotate? Scribble in the margins. Underline the text. Highlight the sentence.

The first digital versions of text tried to ape their paper antecedents. Zinio and other early e-mag technologies were basically smarter PDFs of pages, but they were proprietary, and it wasn’t until HTML provided a common framework and page description language that there was some semblance of standardization on how to read pixels.

Now that we are two years into the dedicated e-reader revolution — starting with the Amazon Kindle and now the notion of iPad apps, all hell is going to break loose on readers with very bad consequences. While others have bemoaned the end of the web as it moves off of standard platforms and onto proprietary ones, my beef is purely based on usability.  Today’s culprit is the vaunted New Yorker’s new iPad version, a “free” app that sticks a $4.99 gun in your ribs as soon as you decide you actually want to read something in it.

Jason Schwartzmann’s cute video instructions aside, the New Yorker is an utter failure as an online reading experience for several reasons.

  • Pages are turned by flicking up, not side to side.
  • The table of contents is impossible to find
  • The standard menu has no option to jack up the font size to make the thing elderly eyes compatible
  • It doesn’t remember your place automatically
  • It doesn’t appear to have any annotation capabilities
  • Getting out of the cute animation of how the cover was drawn was nigh impossible

New Yorker editor David Remnick needs to b-tch-slap his designers and start over. I will not buy an iPad version of the magazine again ($4.99 is a rip off what appears, thanks to the missing table of contents, to be a severely truncated version of the real thing). Whomever coded the thing and made their “enhancements” to the reading experience are the beginning of an ugly trend that is only going to get uglier as formats splinter and digital typographic designers decide to innovate the same way they managed to muck up web design over the years. Amazon enforces a modicum of standardization, so for now my allegiances will lie with the iPad’s Kindle app. But magazines and papers better settle on a defacto standard for tablet/reader publishing or we’re all screwed trying to find out where the table of contents is, the font adjuster and the virtual bookmark. I need to get smarter about these new tablet production tools.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

3 thoughts on “The coming failure of digital periodicals”

  1. “The table of contents is impossible to find” brings to mind those days of yore when the New Yorker had no table of contents. I remember when they finally added one and the controversy that ensued. The “Don’t change anything” hardliners were aghast. Of course, it was an improvement. It sounds like the digital version, however, is not.

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  2. Love that video! Much as I like my Kindle, I admit it has significant shortcomings, namely the inability to flip through pages (in either direction). Sometimes the drowsy reader wants to see how many more pages remain in a chapter before deciding whether to fight off sleep and plow ahead, or turn down the page and resume reading the next day.

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  3. In a time when everyone is cutting budgets, we’re now expecting our tech teams to support all kinds of new formats.

    Where we once had UI and backend developers, we now have devs who handle iPhone/Ipad dev, others handling Android, while we have another group working on Kindle. Then there’s the old web crew who now start to look like linotype operators for their lack of specialization.

    Long term, this model is pain for all of us. Crap that doesn’t work, with widely uneven quality in the stuff that does.

    It all becomes flavor of the month development eventually. Once we start chasing the platforms, we’re on our way down that slippery slope.

    It’s Netscape/IE all over again.

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