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Are Tablets the Future of Magazines?

I know a certain magazine staff that is going through the somewhat painful process of transitioning from print to digital.

Are Tablets the Future of Magazines?

Apr 16, 2012 9:52 AM,
By Jason Bovberg

I know a certain magazine staff that is going through the somewhat painful process of transitioning from print to digital. It’s pretty clear even to the oldest, most conservative editors on this staff that the future is digital, and yet there is a nervous energy in the air. To many—even now, when tablet computing, led by the Apple iPad, is taking the consumer-electronics industry by storm—abandoning the tried-and-true print magazine and forging ahead into the realm of the digital edition seems like a leap of faith.

There’s no question, at least in my mind, that magazines and newspapers are the killer app for tablet computers. It seems like destiny. That big, fun, glossy, swipable interface is ideally suited to the casual flipping of the virtual pages of a colorful magazine, and even for consuming a newspaper’s limited-word-count articles. Because it’s “recreational reading,” rather than the more intensive experience provided by a book, this type of media consumption was made for the tablet.

(I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable with the notion of reading books on e-readers or tablets, such as the iPad, the Amazon Kindle, or the Barnes & Noble Nook. I just can’t see trading in my beloved jacketed hardcovers for a soulless device in which the book feels less like a work of creative art than a cold collection of bits and bytes. But hey, that’s just me.)

And there’s also the impression that tablets are surging at exactly the right moment, just in time to save an already dying method of communication. For years, we’ve seen the warning signs: Newspapers and magazines have lost millions of subscribers and advertisers thanks to the computer and the Internet. News and information and readable entertainment are now just a click away! No need to spend any money on subscriptions, no need to walk down the driveway in your pajamas to grab a rain-dampened newspaper, no need to get ink on your fingers. Newspaper classified sections are a thing of the past, thanks to Craigslist; printed advertising supplements are on the verge of obsolescence, thanks to the lightning-fast updating of retail websites; and those evil subscription cards are an even larger annoyance and waste of paper than they ever were, feeling like part of a distant, ridiculous past. Now, you don’t even have to leave your house to get all the hassle-free information you need.

But what’s missing from most households—as they let their subscriptions gradually lapse—has been the cohesion of a magazine or newspaper “issue”—that sense of an editorial staff assembling a tailor-made, themed assemblage of content month to month. It’s that sense of order that’s missing, as well as the concept of personality. Anyone can randomly surf the Internet as whims strike, but what most of us value in a magazine is the table of contents—the knowledge that a crack team of professionals has put together something unique for you. An issue of a periodical is far more than the sum of its parts—exactly the opposite of a Google search.

Which is why digital issues of magazines and newspapers hold so much promise.

But at the same time, I can understand the trepidation of that magazine staff I mentioned. It’s one thing to say that tablets are the perfect foundation for the future of recreational reading; it’s quite another for a magazine to give up its print incarnation and start delivering its issues solely to tablets. After all, how many readers have actually made the full transition from reading printed magazines to paging through e-contents on their tablet? Does a digitized magazine even have the same perceived value as a hard-copy magazine? People are used to everything being free on the Internet; are they going to have a problem paying a subscription fee for something delivered to them over email? True, the magazine staff pays the same amount to authors for content, and expends the same number of man-hours to produce that magazine, but perception is everything: The “issue” is no longer something a reader holds in his or her hands but rather something ephemeral that appears on a screen.

But the advantages are clear. E-readers and tablets can receive new issues of magazines or newspapers instantly, without you having to go to a mailbox or tip a delivery boy. Nothing is ever lost or weather-battered or late. You just turn on your device and enjoy the issue—obviously far less overhead for the publisher, and a whole new level of convenience. And let’s not forget that a digitized magazine offers vast potential for multimedia. Imagine having a magazine in your hand that embeds related videos and photos and audio files; just click Play, and you have an unprecedented level of interaction with the article. Not to mention the fact that you have instant access from a given article to related reading on the web. And digital magazines—by skipping the typical months-long production/printing process—can be far more timely. From the reader perspective, imagine also that you have instant access to that magazine’s archives, rather than having to dig through boxes in your garage for back issues. Going digital seems a win-win for all involved.

And yet there’s still that lingering doubt. I believe it was the Romans who invented the newspaper a couple thousand years ago, give or take, and magazines—though far younger—also have a long and storied history. Even in today’s rapidly evolving tech world, it’s going to take a lot to change our periodical-reading habits. Music was easy (heck, music has always had a shifting history of delivery formats), but words? Getting accustomed to not holding those pulpy or glossy pages in our hands is a difficult thing to imagine, even considering all the aforementioned benefits. And that magazine staff is a bit worried that it’s an awful lot to ask of a readership.

But we’re facing the future right now—publishers and readers alike—and it’s times like these when we have to take that leap of faith. No time for conservative thinking! We know it’s coming, so why go through the grueling wait? Embrace the inevitable!

Yeah, it’s still weird.

What do you think?

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