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Magazine Publishers Scramble To Streamline Their App Production

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Magazine publishers are not only trying to pack more features and content into their apps — they’re also trying to design for an ever-growing variety of devices and formats. The result is wreaking havoc with traditional print production schedules and, in some cases, budgets. And, then there’s the fear that even after all that blood-sweat, advertisers and readers will see the magazine apps as irrelevant.

One executive at a major publisher told me: “We shouldn’t be doing magazine apps. It’s a different format entirely from a print publication. We should be spending the resources to come up with special extensions of the brand.” The source added: “Consider the fact that iTunes doesn’t even have a dedicated ‘magazine section,’ so we’re effectively competing with Angry Birds and Flipboard at the same time.”

Yet despite the hurdles, major publishers are, of course, building apps, and are scrambling to streamline production and technology to make that process easier and cheaper. To get more insight into ways that big publishers are dealing with the new deadlines and formats, I spoke with executives at Time (NYSE: TWX) Inc.’s Sports Illustrated, Hearst Magazines’ Popular Mechanics and Condé Nast.

Sports Illustrated: On top of developing apps for each of Sports Illustrated’s weekly editions, the Sports Illustrated Group has done about 20 additional apps this year and two books with “enhanced” for iPad editions. Yet the SI Group hasn’t added much in the way of personnel to handle the additional workload-just two new art department staffers, one for tablets and one for print. Executives say rather than adding more people, the key is getting the production routine down.

The major change was scheduling. For a lot of magazines, the work on the iPad version happens when the print version is completed. “For years at SI, we worked a four-day schedule, long days on weekends,” said Bob Kannell, director of operations for the sports and news group at Time Inc. “We’ve had to move the schedule around and so now we have fewer staffers in on, say, a Thursday.”

It has also tried to economize by not producing apps for every different device and screen standard. It is betting on two standards in particular — the iPad, which has a screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the Galaxy, which is 16:9 aspect ratio — and believes that apps produced for those two formats can be scaled to work with other devices. “Designing for 16:9 and 4:3 will save art departments in the long run. If we have to custom tailor each device it would kill us because there are literally more devices than days of the week,” says Chris Hercik, creative director for SI Group.

Popular Mechanics: After its second iPad issue hit the iTunes store in January, Popular Mechanics, a magazine dedicated to figuring out how stuff works, did an analysis of its workflow. Jim Meigs, the magazine’s editor, discovered much to his chagrin that it took an average of five weeks to make a monthly app. He has since whittled that down to under four weeks, matching it with the magazine’s close.

Unlike Sports Illustrated, which uses WoodWing to help create its apps, or Condé Nast, which relies on Adobe’s software, Popular Mechanics does it all in-house. One of the reasons for that is PM articles require as much crafting of blueprints as they do text and images, so Meigs has expanded the number of people in the art department and brought on a “Digital Asset Editor”-a non-print techie who makes sure all the pictures, diagrams and sound files are properly formatted. Also, the same team produces a piece in both its print and digital iterations.

Meigs says it is time to get more adventurous with PM’s apps. The May issue, for example, will contain an article/video game that will illustrate the physics behind landing a spacecraft properly. PM iPad users will be able to design a spacecraft within the app, choose the kind of fuel, and decide whether to use parachutes and retrorockets. They will then attempt to steer the craft to a soft landing-if they fail, they crash. Meigs concedes that the time and cost of creating the videogame feature is disproportionate to what the business model can support over the long term. “We’re not going to do something like this every month, but these are the early days and you have to break ground,” he says, adding: “If we have 10 great items like the videogame feature, we can package and sell it separately as a long-tail item.”

Condé Nast: Along with Time Inc., Condé Nast was preparing for the iPad months in advance. It had been working with Adobe (NSDQ: ADBE) on a Flash-based system. But just before Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) debuted the device last year, Apple said that it wouldn’t support Flash. After a quick return to the drawing board, Condé Nast launched Wired in May. The app sold 24,000 downloads of the $4.99 app within 24 hours. Condé Nast, of course, has developed apps for its other titles too. In all, it has had 700,000 digital editions downloaded and approximately 7 million across 22 apps.

Rick Levine, Condé Nast’s SVP for Editorial Operations, and Scott Dadich, VP of digital magazine development, have been working on a set of best practices for the company to follow in producing apps. For the most part, editors and their staffs have to take the time to understand how to work on the Adobe platform and get used to imagining different iterations for a particular piece. “The process is what we expected – a bit bumpy at first, but as the editorial and design teams have more digital editions under their belt the process is getting easier,” says Condé Nast editorial director Tom Wallace. Each magazine has its own culture and workflow so there isn’t any one single answer for streamlining the process, he adds. The company is working on better sharing options and enhanced e-commerce tools within the apps.

Some users of Condé Nast’s apps have complained about painfully long downloading times. Wallace says that to make that process more tolerable, the apps will have progressive downloading so that readers will be able to begin reading an issue while the content is being transferred, with priority given to items on the cover.

5 Responses to “Magazine Publishers Scramble To Streamline Their App Production”

  1. All mags should do what the Economist is doing. Full content is available at no additional charge to print subscribers, the downloads times are tolerable, and it’s easy to read (for some reason I haven’t figured out yet, it actually seems easier to digest on the iPad). There may not be a lot of bells and whistles, but I’m not missing that.

    • Some people focus too much on download times when that’s really a relative issue where one size should not be expected to fit all. We publish a music magazine so it would only make sense that our publication would be heavier than a news magazine.

      Magazine’s should’nt just throw bells and whistles in just because they can. It has to make sense in the context of the magazine.

    • I’m a big fan of the Economist App and read it regularly. What I like about is the fact that it hasn’t tried to use any of the bells and whistles it would have used. It’s just very simply navigated and, once found, the pieces are easy to read. In most cases the few pictures on the stories are only there to lighten up the presentation. I think there’s also something in the fact that it’s a high frequency, topical magazine. There’s a certain urgency about the material that suits the technology.

  2. We’re a small company that publishes 2 tablet only publications and we will soon be running into the same issues addressed here. Right now we support only the iPad which makes it pretty easy to get our publications to print. One screen size.

    Once Android tablets start seeing some significant sales, we plan to create Android versions as well which opens up a whole new can of worms. I personally don’t like the 7″ tablets and am torn on actually supporting their screen resolution. I’ve seen the 7″ version of Pop Sci and it doesn’t compare at all to the iPad version. But people are buying them so I have to come up with something.

    I definitely think Apple could be a little more proactive in promoting magazines with it’s own damn section. I’ve asked the question to Apple customer service to only have it totally ignored. Really, what the hell is the big deal with creating a freaking magazine section??? That would totally help out smaller publications like ours be found.

  3. Tim Barkow

    Can somebody dig up some RECENT iPad mag sales figures? Anything? Publishers are quick to trumpet their successes, but I have yet to see any numbers that signify whether anyone is generating any SUSTAINED traction. And what about revenues?

    Conde Nast’s summary numbers sound good, but what’s the real story?

    I have heard troubling stories about severe lack of traction in downloads, as well as ridiculous workflows (create 3 versions of the magazine: print, iPad vertical, iPad horizontal). But until someone actually does some serious probing, everyone will continue to stumble around in the dark, and swallow whatever corporate PR decides is the story.

    Amidst all this double speak, I have a strong feeling that the emperor has no clothes.