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.
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.
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.