Media

The Economist for iPad is barebones and featureless, but that's okay

I’ve been playing with the recently released iPhone and iPad apps for The Economist magazine in the past week, and I’ve got a stinging critique: not of the app itself (although it falls short in several ways), but of the new media and publishing 2.0 naysayers who incessantly repeat, “those old media farts got it wrong again!”

Not only is that line becoming terribly cliché, it’s downright ignorant of the market realities of the publishing industry. Certain publications such as The Economist have a readership that wouldn’t necessarily value any of the interactivity afforded by new media like the iPad. The quality analysis readers expect of the magazine’s correspondents wouldn’t change much if it were offered with all the “gee-whiz” interactive extras you see touted by other ‘adventurous’ publications.

Not only would The Economist waste considerable resources in developing features most readers wouldn’t care for, they’d also have to pass along those costs to the same readership. Unfortunately for the new media pundits, price-sensitivity is an economic concept most businesses keep in mind, and publishing is no exception. In other words: developing native iPad interactivity for text-heavy publications could do more to harm the transition to that medium than promote it and monetize it.

Given these considerations, The Economist iPad app is, understandably, mediocre. Like the Wired magazine app that made headlines a few months ago, it’s a major publication that’s made the tablet switch by way of a simple conversion: this app is more of an image-viewer than a full-blown reading app. The moment you realize you can’t actually highlight any text in the app, it becomes clear that each page was merely scanned and adjusted to fit a 10” screen. While the navigation elements have been thoughtfully enhanced for the new medium—providing readers the ability to easily hop to other articles within different sections—the rest of the iPad version of The Economist looks and feels just like the regular old print version.

Beyond looking like the print version, the app also oddly carries over the same limitations: you can’t define words within the app (Apple’s native iBooks app and my personal reading favorite Instapaper both allow this); you can’t share or ‘like’ any article through Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Reddit, and the like; you can’t annotate text or copy-paste it (due to the lack of highlighting); and you can’t adjust contrast or switch to white-on-black mode. While this is all disappointing, there’s a logic to the modest conversion these publishers have opted for that others have missed and will sorely pay for.

We already know that the few publications that have sunk considerable resources to develop iPad-native reading experiences such as Time, Inc. have been stuck with a less-than-optimal business model for their digital operations. The aforementioned price-sensitivity has come back to haunt them (witness nearly ten-thousand 2 star reviews on their App Store page). Despite how flashy their multimedia version may be (which still lacks many bells-and-whistles), the significant costs in editorial, research, and production factors of publishing in a new medium means readers must pay $4.99 per issue instead of just tens of cents per print issue.

Given its audience, the business case for The Economist building a more interactive app is difficult to see. By merely porting its print edition over to the iPad, it’s at least not incurring the additional content-development costs that would yield uncertain revenues, some of which may be cannibalized from print subscriptions.

Lastly and most interestingly, this simple conversation can actually be more gratifying to readers than a more feature-packed, ‘native’ experience. For example, unlike the recently updated iPad-native New York Times app (for which paid subscription will soon be required), The Economist displays advertising between articles, not within them, which is a surprising layout triumph in the age of display ad overload.

Clearly, in certain cases, the new media technorati have misunderstood publishing 2.0’s complexities. Sometimes, publishers don’t need to go out of their way to deliver the same or better quality to readers through new mediums. I hope Rupert Murdoch and Steve Jobs get the memo!