net.wars: Hold the digital front page

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 February 2006

A month ago, I got a letter from Business Week, which I've subscribed to for some years, mostly for the American technology coverage. The magazine has ended its long-running European and Asian editions in favour of a "Global Edition", which will cost nearly £100 a year - nearly three times as much as the US edition. Which, let it be known, is what I actually wanted to subscribe to in the first place. If I want European or global business news I have many  options: the Financial Times or, especially, The Economist

Wendy M Grossman

The alternative is a digital version of the US edition that you download and read on screen. In one sense, that sounds ideal: it is the US edition, and it's delivered at relatively low cost (though it works out at only about 30 percent less than the print edition delivered to a US address). So Business Week asked what I'd like done with what was left of my subscription money, and I opted for digital just to see what it was like. After all, this is what our future's going to be, right?

I thought I probably wouldn't like it, and I was wrong: I hate it.

For one thing, you have to read the magazine in the Zinio reader. Which you have to install, and which, in my case, will display on only one of my two screens, which means I can't pick which screen or resolution I want to read it on. Yes, the displayed magazine looks exactly like the print version, every page of it. Including the double-page advertising spreads. Which is, of course, fair enough, I suppose. The magazine has to pay its expenses, and so on. You can even, the program tells you proudly, annotate the pages (as if this were some brave, new feature). And you can do full-text searches.

But reading on screen isn't the same as reading a print magazine, and trying to copy the physical world format exactly is just plain a bad idea, as Webmasters everywhere have spent the last decade learning. There is, at least, a little slider bar that lets you tortuously navigate through the magazine, besides a pair of buttons that let you "turn" pages back and forth. You have to ? or as they put it, you can -- zoom in to read the pages.


Let's leave aside the fact that every time I start Zinio it seems to interact badly with Explorer (in Windows 2000) so I can't open windows, or can't start the task manager, or?some other annoyingly useful thing, depending which things are already running when Zinio starts. That's unpleasant, but may be some kind of artifact of my system.

Zinio is slow. Magazines download slowly (an issue of Business Week is 13-15Mb). They load slowly. They print really slowly. (Zinio makes it look like you can only print the page spread you're on; you can put in any page numbers you like but the reader was messing up my system so much and printing was taking so long that I cancelled after a page or two.) I am given to understand that we have video ads to look forward to ? a selling point  to  publishers, but loathsome for anyone who likes to, you know, read.

I don't know how you read magazines, but I read them in transit. The articles are about the right length for travelling, and if you finish with the magazine you can tear out anything you want to keep and abandon or trash the rest. The great thing about magazines is their portability (and the fact that you can read them when electronic devices are banned). If I'm going to have a digital version, I want it to be readable on, say, the Palm ? a device I'm already carrying with me, that stuffs conveniently in a pocket, and whose screen characteristics I like.

What's interesting is that I briefly actually believed I might read Business Week this way. To be fair, I had no idea how it would be delivered or in what format. I had no idea it would be so? unpleasant.

Given a print magazine, I tend to go through it page by page, skimming at least the first few paragraphs of everything. With this, I find myself paging through it and stopping only if something is obviously interesting. This sounds about right; the Rebuilding Media blog noted last September that the average US reader spends four minutes on a newspaper site.

Now, I know I got all googly-eyed about The Complete New Yorker on DVD, which also requires its viewer, but the difference is one of expectation. I was never able to read a 1936 edition of the magazine anywhere outside a research library before, and being able to do that in any sense at home is a wonderful use of new technology. But a current weekly has always come in a usable format, and I expect that. So: digital magazines may open up new markets ? probably especially in the area of single issue sales ? but as presently delivered they make a poor replacement for the old format.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).