Magazines, Kindles and iPads — Reading vs. Looking

by Randy Murray on August 23, 2011

I recently participated in an interesting podcast with Iain Broome, Brett Kelly, and the hosts, Myke Hurley and Terry Lucy. You can find it here: episode 69 of The Bro Show. During the discussion we turned to the state of magazine publishing in the digital age. While both talking and listening to the others I had several thoughts I’d like to expand upon.

I’m not completely satisfied by what I’m seeing at this point. I don’t think the idea of the magazine translates very well to any digital format, not even the iPad. I think it’s because many don’t really understand what magazines are, what they do, not even magazine publishers.

Magazines use text and images AND design to create an experience. I frequently hear people say, “I’m going to look at a magazine.” Look at, not read. The layout, the visual presentation of a magazine may be just as important, if not more so, than the words. Magazines allow the reader to browse, to skim. Items catch the readers eye and draw them in. Magazines are something to relax with. Readers of many magazines like this are sometimes equally interested in the advertisements. I’ll admit that I find most of them annoying, but a few draw me in. But the magazine is also contained. In digital form it is boundless. Part of what makes a magazine desirable is it’s limits.

For many, the magazine is a break, a time to rest. It requires very little energy to look at a magazine. It can be soothing, relaxing, even meditative.

There are many publications, however, that focus more on text, on long articles, and these experiences are slightly different. They do translate better into the digital. The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, and The Nation all translate very well to the digital world. They may be even better digitally. Fresh, instant, easy to manipulate and change for readability without really changing the experience. They can be presented with a pleasing, thought provoking layout and retain much of the experience of reading the print version. Why? Because these publications are designed to be read, not just looked at. The visual elements, the illustrations, photos, even the typography and layout are carefully designed to enhance the experience of the reader.

But magazines like Better Home and Gardens or People — these are almost purely visual creatures. The way the articles, advertisements, and features are presented are crucial to the experience. A text-only version of People Magazine might only be a few paragraphs long (a slight exaggeration, but not by much). Magazines like this are meant to be looked at. Even their current web sites, including multimedia, don’t really get at the visual experience that these magazines give the reader.

But it’s not the same when you try to “convert” that into a digital experience. Multimedia isn’t the answer. You can’t really browse video. Multimedia approaches are too frenetic. The calming experience of browsing a magazine is largely lost in the digital world. And to simply create a PDF and flip through it on an iPad seems stiff and artificial. Why do it?

Here’s my radical suggestion: for many magazines, keep your print editions. You can create something new and different for the iPad, for digital distribution. But keep your print edition and make it even more fresh and exciting. Keep the newsstand alive. It’s OK. Paper is a renewable resource. Print design can be a terrific art form, as well as press production. Don’t rob your subscribers, your readers (and lookers) from a needed respite. Yes, I’d happily take The New Yorker on the iPad alone. But I don’t need everything on my iPad. Print magazines might find a new renaissance if there were to embrace their core nature and not rush headlong into digital oblivion.


The Magazines, Kindles and iPads — Reading vs. Looking by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ann Janzen August 30, 2011 at 4:47 pm

This is so true. I would be so lost without magazines to look at. Magazines have been very close to my number one way of relaxing. I could honestly experience some depression if they removed all printed copy from circulation!


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