It seems to be part of the human way of being that we cast anything new in the mould of the old. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, the first things to roll off it were exactly the same form of Biblical texts that those legions of monks working in scriptoriums had produced. Roll forwards a few centuries, and the first TV shows looked very much like someone had mounted a stage play - and then pointed a camera at it.
We in the publishing game have a name for this phenomenon - we call it “shovelware”. We used to use the term to describe the way we just took our print copy and shoveled it onto the web - a phase that, thankfully, most publishing businesses have moved beyond. However, the arrival of the iPad has given us the opportunity to get that ol’ shovel back out of the box, and shovel our magazines straight into a new form.
Oh, make no mistake, this has been made very easy for us. Adobe - amongst others - has given us tools to take our magazines and shove them onto the iPad with just a few clicks. And publishers have been doing this with abandon - if limited commercial success. Now wonder: this is shovelware 2.0, and it will be just as damaging to our businesses in the long term as its 1990s version was.
To take a look at a future beyond shovelware 2.0, it’s worth peeking at The Loop - an iOS-only magazine from the publisher of the website of the same name. The Loop (website edition) is a blog mainly about Apple and the ecosystem around it, written by Jim Dalrymple, a former Macworld journalist, who was editor-at-large when he left in 2009 to launch his own thing.
The Loop (magazine edition) is a different beast. It’s a magazine that carries a whole range of material - the latest edition has features on The Pogues, sports, the iPod, airplane WiFi and gaming. It’s an eclectic mix designed to appeal to the same people who read the site - but not to replicate it.
Oh, and yes, those five features are all there are in the latest issue of the fortnightly magazine. The Loop is an attention crisis format magazine. In an age when people often give “not being able to finish my issues” as a common reason for not renewing their subscriptions, there’s a new class of digital mags that eschew the “biggest ever issue” claim, to keep it tight and compact. This movement was branded the “sub-compact magazine” by Craig Mod, in a seminal blog post that compared many existing digital editions to a car designed by Homer Simpson in an episode of The Simpsons: it has so much built onto it, it becomes ridiculous and impractical.
Douglas Adams once joked that a video recorder was a labour-saving device just like the washing machine. One washed clothes for us, the other watched TV shows for us. On occasions, Newsstand has felt like a 21st century equivalent of that - a place where large magazines that we have no time to read go to lurk, without troubling our consciences by sitting there in big, unread piles. The subcompact magazines publish small numbers of very high quality features, with the idea that you’re happy to keep a cheap sub running if you know you’ll be able to consume all the content. Five features in two weeks seems eminently do-able.
The Loop pushes the format further than many of its ilk, though. It relaunched last October, with a new look powered by the Glide technology used to create interactive books. Its new aesthetic does not derive directly from magazines, but creates a digital native form. There’s two axes of interaction - left and right to choose between issues and stories, and up and down to read the content. Pictures, videos and the like are integrated into the content flow, zooming up to fill the screen when you hit the appropriate point in the text, and then shrinking away again as you continue down the page. It’s a true multimedia experience, which integrates other media into the reading flow, rather than treating it all as separate elements.
I’ll admit: it’s a disconcerting experience the first few times you read it. But, as you come to appreciate the new way of interacting with the article, it makes a lot of sense. Weaving other media into the narrative like this makes for a more coherent and immersive experience than traditional page layouts - and one that’s ideally suited for the single “page” of the tablet screen.
If this is what the post-shovelware future of magazines looks like - narrow, yet deep - then I’ll be very happy indeed. Somehow, getting through two or three magazines of this style a month feels more inviting and less intimidating than one traditional magazine shoved onto a digital device.
The Loop can be downloaded from the App Store.