Why I’m Not Sold on Digital Magazines

I recently wrote a glowing review of Zinio, an app that allows you to buy, subscribe to, and read magazines. I think that the fine folks at Zinio did a really, really great job on the app, but I’m not quite sold on the notion of digital magazines.

While I’m fully behind e-books (my Kindle is awesome), don’t buy CDs any more, and pick up DVD/Blu-Ray discs sparingly, there is something different about owning an actual magazine.

It’s true that I’ve fully embraced the digital age. I am a web developer and technologist. I have an Android phone, an Android tablet, a Google TV, two Macs, two PCs, a Kindle, and an iPhone. Oh, and a car for Ford Sync. All of my music is in the cloud and whenever a book I want is available on my Kindle, I usually buy that version (with one exception – read on to find out what that is). I use Netflix for most of my TV/movie watching, and have rented from Amazon’s Video Library. By all accounts, I should love digital magazines. But I don’t. Here’s why.

Caveat: I’m not too familiar with the digital magazine experience on the iPad, so I can’t speak to it. My main experience is using Zinio and Google Currents, which as far as I can tell, are the main choices unless the magazine makes their own app.

Keeping It Old School

This may sound cliche and silly, but I like to have a physical magazine to thumb through, and dog ear, and rip out pages from if I want. The difference between a magazine and a book is that reading a book is usually a linear activity. You start at the beginning and go until the end. But that’s generally not how magazines work. You thumb through or check the table of contents for an article that interests you. While you can certainly “thumb through” a digital version of the magazine (Zinio gives you several very convenient options for navigation), it doesn’t feel the same: it feels like I’m viewing a less interactive website.

The thing is, I’m not just reading the magazine for the story (in most cases). I’m reading it for the take-away; for something I can reference again later. It’s for the same reason that when it comes to e-books, reference books are the exception (ding!). I want something I can pull off my bookshelf, highlight, dog ear, etc. With magazines, it’s even more than that. If there is a particular picture or article I like, I rip it out and hang it up on this wall in front of my desk. Think of it as a collage of inspirational things. That’s not exactly something you can do with a digital magazine.

The Wall when I first started it. It's 88% nerd.

Missed Opportunities

I also think that digital magazines in their current state are missing some very important opportunities. What I’ve observed, at least from what I subscribe to on Zinio and Google Currents, is that we’re looking at a digital clone of a print magazine in most cases. However, a tablet is not a print magazine. It’s capable of a lot more. Instead of retro-fitting the magazine’s design to a digital format, publishers need to redesign the magazine as a digital one. That means abandoning the two-page across layout, making it easier to copy/paste/share content, and add in media that a tablet can actually handle.

The beautiful thing about having a digital magazine is you can add more interactivity to it. Create images that can be manipulated; graphs that can change based on input; diagrams that can be resized and represented in different ways; articles with accompanying videos and audio clips. If Rolling Stone does an album review, include a song or two. Include the trailer with a movie review. You can add photo sliders and videos to accompany the tutorial text. For drawing or design tutorials, include a canvas for your reader to work on (seriously, how cool would that be?). You can make it more than what is essentially a high res image of a magazine page.

Final Thoughts

In the digital media age, as a publisher you will have to harness the power of digital media if you want to make it. Right now I prefer print magazines for two reasons: I like having a magazine rack with tangible objects to reference, and publishers simply aren’t harnessing the power of the medium yet. It’s great to be able to read the content of the magazine on your device, but a digital magazine can be so much more; it could add so much value to print media, and that’s what both publishers and readers need.