Magazine Apps Still Evolving

When I interviewed for my job here at Parthenon Publishing, one of the key questions asked was, “Which magazines do you read?”

I have been a magazine-aholic just about all my life, starting with my first subscriptions to Highlights and Humpty Dumpty. I spent most of my work life toiling away at all types of publications, first as an editorial assistant and eventually as managing editor of a weekly that competed directly with TV Guide.

So I laughed when I admitted that I didn’t read a lot of magazines anymore. Oh, I still read plenty of magazine articles. But I was doing most of my article consumption online.

Now, with the iPad and other tablets, magazines are going app crazy, trying to figure out how to reach readers. The first efforts have had a lot of bells and whistles, with links to videos and photo galleries. Cosmopolitan unveiled its app recently, proudly pointing out that users can use it to tally the answers to the magazine’s ever-present quizzes in seconds. The app includes audio elements to certain stories and a live-stream ticker of Cosmo-centric factoids.

A reviewer, complimenting the app’s many innovative and fun features, noted, “But one thing is absent from the app: articles.”

This is the same complaint that users had for the pioneering tablet-only publication The Daily. Subscribers admired the features, but dismissed the lightweight articles and longed for stories with more depth.

This is not my writer/editor whine about the superiority of print. The move to reading online is real. The question is what that will mean. Are long-form articles going to be a relic of the past? Will article design and graphics, which can give the reader another way of understanding a story, fall away in this new format? Will magazine apps aspire to nothing more than being the next Angry Birds?

I don’t believe that. Right now magazine apps are in their infancy. The novelty features that provide a wow factor and little else will fade away. The tools that provide some value to the reader will remain and get better, and the readers will make their preferences known with their wallets. The publications will follow the reader. And all indications are that the reader wants substance.

It’s actually an exciting time for the publishing world, as new possibilities open up. In a few years, the interview question for the next job applicant may well be, “Which apps do you use?”