I mean The Economist, which persists in referring to itself as a newspaper even though it physically appears to be a magazine. Well, it does indeed deliver news and is printed on paper. Oops, maybe not. The mobile app version is out, and it’s noticeably better than the one involving dead trees.

Basics · Anyone can install the app, it’s free. If you’re not a subscriber, it’ll download some highlights from each issue. If you are, then at 9PM British time each Thursday, you can download that week’s issue, in full; all the articles and pictures.

I’ve been a subscriber for decades; there are a lot of people out there who feel that if you don’t read The Economist, you really can’t claim to be well-informed. I wouldn’t go that far, but it sure does help; it may have peers in other languages, but I don’t think in English. It even mostly fails to provoke the Gell-Mann amnesia effect.

I gave them some grief for editorial lapses back in 2006 and 2007, but the necessary socks seem to have pulled up; I rarely spot that sort of thing any more.

Logistics · First, I get each issue the day it comes out; the paper version never arrives in Vancouver before the Monday following that Thursday evening.

Second, while I didn’t see anything about multi-user access, it’s there; both Lauren and I can download and read the issues just fine.

Third, I often read this paper on the plane. The fact that the app grabs the whole thing in a gulp and stores it offline means that works too.

Look and Feel · For reasons related to overoptimistic adoption of shaky engineering builds of unreleased mobile operating systems, I don’t actually have a working Android tablet. And I thought that a text-intensive product such as this might not work well on a handset. Boy, was I ever wrong.

The problem, I thought, was that the dinky little screen on a handset would just be inappropriate for presentation of material in the length and depth typical of the Economist. Then I opened up my first issue.

I could describe why I was wrong, but it’ll be easier just to show you.

Economist story, on paper and a mobile device

You see, the columns in the paper are more or less just the right size to display on a handheld device. (There are a few interesting lessons about the issues that arise in electronic vs on-paper typography right there.)

On top of which, the controls are just the simplest thing imaginable; you swipe the articles up and down, and left and right between articles. Each is thus in a single column, which to me works better than the sometimes fanciful layouts they use to fit them into the awkward rectangular paper pages.

On top of which, the pictures and infographics leap off the screen (particularly a super-AMOLED screen) and are just way more compelling than on paper.

Advertising · Here’s where it gets interesting. I’ve always thought that magazine ads work better than do most other media. Perhaps, because of the substantial time you spend on each page, the brands have a chance to penetrate your consciousness via your peripheral vision. Perhaps it’s because the ultra-high pixel density of magazine printing allows for gorgeous designs that reward the eye for considering them.

Anyhow, the advertising industry has for now decided that online display advertising is worth less than magazine display advertising, and I think they’re probably right.

But this app might offer some really premium advertising opportunities. I think that most people, like me, will read it pretty linearly, swiping from one article to the next, and deciding whether to skip or read. Thus, you have an opportunity for a modest number of inter-article ads that will be guaranteed to fill the screen, if only briefly. If these ads were were really visually compelling, or offering a product that I cared about, I might actually stop briefly and look at them, which I very rarely do with most Web display ads. More than one such ad between any two articles would be abusive, of course.

In the first 2 issues I’ve looked at, the only ads have been for, uh, the Economist Android app that I’m using to read the thing. [Snicker].

Speaking of snickering, for an elite/intelligent publication, the ads in The Economist have always struck me as sort of lame. They mostly urge on me the virtues of buying analog timepieces, staying at luxury hotels, and developing personal relationships with investment banks and law firms.

Since they now have a chance to put advertising where I might actually look at it, I’m hoping that some of it will try to sell me something I might buy.

Closing Questions · First, does the The Economist need to go on publishing its paper version? Not for very long, I shouldn’t think.

Second, does the notion of a weekly publication still make sense? Oddly, I think it does. The Economist has blogs, one or two of which I subscribe to and glance at most days. But this pattern of getting a reflective deep-dive take on the world once a week, and soaking it up as time allows for the next few days, feels about right to me.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Michael Rowe (Aug 12 2011, at 03:12)

Hi Tim,

Nice write up, and I agree with everything you said about The Economist.

I'm sure it was a purely innocent over-sight that you forgot to mention that iPhone and iPad versions of The Economist app have been available for many months. They are also a great way to read great journalism.

:-)

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From: Bill Hovingh (Aug 12 2011, at 03:13)

Does the Android app also include audio, as the iPhone app does? As much as I enjoy reading the text, having it read to me in perfect Received Pronunciation is a wonderful addition to my morning commute.

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From: David Megginson (Aug 12 2011, at 05:05)

I've been reading <cite>The Economist</cite> since the late 80s, though I let my subscription lapse the last couple of years. I agree that it's the best current-affairs publication out there, at least in the English language. I'd love to read it on my Nexus One, but ... a phone app? ... seriously?

I think it's ridiculous that we've come to the point that we're supposed to install a separate proprietary phone app for every publication we read -- it reminds me of the bad old days before the Web, when reading electronic publications meant installing software from a proprietary CD-ROM for each one.

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From: Fazal Majid (Aug 12 2011, at 05:12)

The value of a weekly publication is that it acts as a low-pass filter on news, providing more context and analysis than a news wire feed can ever hope to provide.

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From: Michel S. (Aug 12 2011, at 06:40)

I just started using it, and so far, the only thing in which it's sub-par compared to the print edition is the text layout -- the ends of each line are markedly jagged in comparison. I wonder if there's a way of getting around it, though -- a TeX text engine for Android, perhaps.

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From: Anton Hünermann (Aug 12 2011, at 07:49)

Hi Tim

I've also been an avid reader and subscriber for decades. I used to have the paper copy in my mailbox (in Switzerland) every Friday but inexplicably it started arriving a day later since about a year. Already for that reason I'm finding the app really useful. I'm actually finding that I'm only opening the magazine to toss it in the recycling so I am also really asking if the paper version is necessary at all ... will be interesting to see when that happens.

Anton

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From: David Megginson (Aug 12 2011, at 10:52)

As with books, the benefit of the paper copy is sharing: all four people in my house can read it, without my having to share a username and password around. Since everyone here is interested in reading it, I plan to resubscribe to the paper edition.

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From: Jeff Licquia (Aug 12 2011, at 10:55)

Deal-killer for me: no support for "Move to SD card". My phone is full enough, thank you.

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From: Nick Carr (Aug 12 2011, at 11:46)

I suspect that The Economist will go on publishing a print edition for a good long time. Unlike a lot of weeklies, it still has healthy subscription levels, at a relatively high subscription price. It's unlikely that it would be able to maintain its subscription levels at its existing price for a digital-only edition. It's a high-status read, for one thing, and people like to be seen reading it (or having it lying on their coffee table). For another thing, consumer expectations about app and digital pricing seem quite different from consumer expectations for print pricing. If you went to digital-only, you would also sacrifice single-copy newsstand sales at The Economist's very high price point ($7 or so, I think). And even if you don't like the luxury goods ads, they're very lucrative and probably largely dependent on the print edition. So I think The Economist views its app as it views its web site: as a value-added supplement to its print edition, not a replacement. Indeed, if The Economist were to abandon its print edition (either by choice or in response to shifts in reader behavior), the resulting economics would be such that its editorial rigor would likely suffer a huge hit, probably creating a downward spiral.

Be careful what you wish for.

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From: dave (Aug 13 2011, at 00:33)

I will bet the Economist will have to continue with physical publishing for quite some time, as your subscription fee's don't cover the cost of all the work necessary to create the magazine and get it to your door. It's the ads that cover the rather large gap between the revenue they receive from magazine sales and costs.

And the ads you describe would be effective pretty much anywhere. It might be a little easier to actually do it for specific things like a certain web site or magazine, but nobody really seems to have tried it [probably because of the costs and risks involved with doing it].

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August 11, 2011
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I am an employee of Amazon.com, but the opinions expressed here are my own, and no other party necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my professional interests is on the author page.