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The appeal of magazine apps

BY RUSSELL ROE

Our art director at Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine likes to put “Easter eggs” in the app version of our magazine as a way to amuse readers (and, truthfully, himself) with little surprises. One month, a skunk sprayed at the screen when readers turned to the feature story on the animals. Another month, an “ouch” appeared on the screen and was heard through the device’s speakers if readers touched a prickly plant.

These little extras offer readers pleasant surprises as they swipe through the content of our magazine. And they’re something that can’t be accomplished in print. Apps can be expensive and time-consuming to produce, but they can be fun, too, and offer another way to reach readers and present content in new forms.

We launched our app in January 2015 for three reasons:

  1. We wanted to be positioned for a digital future. We don’t think print is going anywhere anytime soon, but the world is increasingly digital and we wanted to be a part of it. We also want our advertisers ready when digital advertising exceeds print advertising. We want to create value not just for our readers, but for our advertisers by giving them new ways to reach their customers.
  2. We wanted a new revenue stream. We figured that by offering a digital magazine, we could reach new readers who weren’t interested in print. We thought we might lose a few print readers who wouldn’t switch to digital, but figured we’d gain more new readers who were out in the digital marketplace already. Those new digital readers would provide us money we weren’t getting otherwise.
  3. We wanted to reach younger readers. Our audience is old and getting older. Our reader surveys tell us that. Younger Americans are reading on their computers and on their phones, and we knew we needed to go where young readers are in order to reach them.

It’s an uncertain time for magazine apps. The rise of tablets gave magazines a lot of hope for expanding audiences, and many new tools have come along to help magazines produce digital editions. But it hasn’t been smooth sailing, and some magazines have already pulled back after dipping a toe in the digital waters.

Apple got rid of Newsstand, where most of the digital magazines lived. That means magazine apps now live on a person’s home screen instead of clumped together with other magazines, a position that may give them more visibility or get them lost amid the clutter.

Despite that uncertainty, it’s important be in the digital marketplace.

Magazines can start small and build a presence as time goes by. Many publications start with creating digital replicas of their content. There’s software out there to convert a print magazine to digital form, and producing such a version doesn’t cost that much. The digital pages look just like the print pages, shrunken down to fit on a tablet. One drawback is that readers looking for digital magazines expect more features than a replica can provide (a replica is especially hard to read on a phone). A replica’s clunkiness can turn readers off, though replicas can be enhanced with videos and hyperlinks. A replica at least gets your publication into the world of digital products, and that’s saying something.

Stepping up from the world of replicas means developing a more fully featured app using Adobe digital publishing products or app producers such as Twixl or Mag-Plus. This will take more time and money but will provide the reader with a more satisfying digital reading experience, with photos and type sized appropriately to suit the device. The costs rise dramatically in terms of staff time and software expenses when stepping up from a replica. But the payoffs can be big.

These apps provide new ways to present content. Videos, slide shows and audio enhancements can be easily integrated with articles, dramatically expanding the storytelling possibilities.

In the first app issue Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine published, we ran a story about wolf snails, which hunt and eat other types of snails. After hours of experimentation, our art director finally created a snail to crawl across the screen, complete with slime trail for the digital version of the story. The result is a little piece of interactivity that adds a bit of levity to the page.

For an article on river songs, we enlisted the help of some Texas singer-songwriters to record videos of a couple of notable Texas river songs mentioned in the story. The videos were placed directly into the app version of the story, providing enhanced content that print readers were not able to get. For the same article, we asked our in-house artist to provide illustrations and cover art. We shot a time-lapse video of him creating his artwork, and the video became a key part of the app experience. The app also linked to a Spotify playlist of dozens of Texas river songs.

Perhaps the best example showing the full use of the app’s capabilities came in an article we did on favorite bird songs. In print, an article on bird songs can do only so much. In the app, it came alive. The print version featured photos of the birds along with a description of the bird song. The app version provided the same, but came with an important extra: a recorded version of the bird song so that readers could hear what the bird sounded like in addition to reading about it. The ability to hear songs of birds, such as the canyon wren and brown thrasher, provided readers a much richer and fuller experience, and that is what we are always striving to achieve. ♦

— Russell Roe is managing editor for Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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