Jim Foster on the world of ePublishing

By Jim Foster


At the end of November, I went to see my GP about a problem I thought was relatively minor. Which shows how much I know about medical stuff, as I ended up spending the following three nights in Peterborough Hospital’s Critical Care Unit, a drip giving me powerful drugs intravenously while hooked up to a monitor that continually read my vital signs and took my blood pressure every fifteen minutes (try sleeping through that!).

Another five nights on a normal ward followed before I was allowed home.

It wasn’t the nicest of experiences and most distressingly of all, I ran out of my data allowance three times (no WiFi for patients) which hardly helped the blood pressure readings!

But I have to say, the levels of care I received were out of this world. In particular, the critical care nurses were phenomenal, a real credit to Peterborough Hospital and the NHS. What a national treasure – we must protect it.

While I’m still not completely fixed, progress is being made…

I’m back at work now and funnily enough, find myself in the middle of one of the most crucial and hectic periods I can remember in my 20-year career. Crucial but exciting, as at the start of January, we flicked the switch and successfully migrated four of our biggest digital titles – Empire, Bike, Car and Practical Photography – from an established software to a new supplier.

In that one moment, a year’s worth of work came to a head. Over 240 fully interactive back issues had been migrated into the new app system. All the planning, all the testing, the training… All the app requirements, the multiple change requests over the duration of the project, the development sprints, arguments about the roadmap and the occasional heated phone call with our German colleagues… All the reader communications and marketing integrations to ensure we reached as many users of the old app as possible, telling them to update…

Everything came down to that one moment when the update appeared on the Apple and Google App stores.

And then? Then it was a brief digital silence, the eye of the storm as we waited to see if we’d missed anything, or if any problems would show themselves in the live environment that hadn’t in testing (it happens). We watched closely to see how many installs we’d get in the hours and days that followed, and most importantly of all, what the users would think of it.

So now, at the time of writing, the new apps have been live for a week and the editorial teams are putting together their first issues using the new software, which are due to go live imminently.

I am pleased with how it has gone to date. The idea was to replace one excellent system with another that offered the same creative opportunities for editorial teams and better marketing tools while saving licensing costs and improving editorial workflow efficiencies. Not to mention, we’re at the forefront now of the software’s development roadmap, which we would never have been under our previous supplier (small fish in a big pond and all that).

Yes, we’ve had some one-star reviews on the update. But as I point out to my chiefs, if your app is working fine and you update to something that is also working fine, with the same interactivity, you’re unlikely to login to the App Store and leave a five-star review, are you? It was ok then, it’s ok now. Big deal.

But if you have a grievance, you are more likely to say something. Indeed, one Empire reader did just that, asking via his review on the iOS App Store, “Which moronic idiotic asshat did they get to write this and all the other Bauer Media apps? Did they not check the size of the file uploads?”

Well hello, mickl86, that would be me, nice to make your acquaintance!

I would genuinely love to meet mickl86, whoever he is, and explain our thinking behind the migration, telling him (assuming it’s a he) that we did check the file sizes. And that the back issues he’s complaining about were that size in the old DPS app from years ago. That future issues in the new app won’t be anywhere near that size, that we’re making an app that will be quicker to download, look fab on his device, be mobile optimised and give him everything he wants from his Empire subscription. That the costs of the new app are substantially less than the old one, safeguarding the magazine’s future.

But thanks to the somewhat unfair nature of the Apple app review system, there’s not a lot I can do in terms of ‘right of reply’, something I would desperately like Apple to address at some point in the future. People pay attention to the star ratings in reviews without realising that, in some instances, the reviewers don’t have the first idea what they are talking about.

Luckily, the editorial teams are a little more positive about the migration than mickl86. The art editor on Empire reckons the new software has real potential, while our main creative talent on Bike reckons it will save him four days’ work per issue moving forwards. In teams being continually asked to make efficiencies and cost savings, this is no bad thing.

Giving editorial teams the ability to create something bespoke and special for their digital editions was important to me. I don’t see a long-term future in PDF replica magazine apps. I think we’re all agreed on that. But what if someone develops a software that’s so easy to use, that gives even the smallest editorial teams the chance to create something that has video, interactivity in it and is device optimised?

Would that not help our cause?

I don’t think we’re quite at that stage yet. The new app has its downsides as well as its potential strategic benefits. The front end design, for example, is rather basic and more thought needs to be put into the UX/UI.

But we’re on our way and one significant hurdle, in terms of getting the new software live, has been overcome. The next thing is to grow our digital editions business this year. 2016 was ok for us – for the first time, our digital magazines contributed a seven-figure sum to the business. Taking that forward will still be a challenge.

But no matter how big the challenges I face at work this year are, as my hospital visit taught me, some things are more important in life than ensuring your portfolio of apps is working ok. A sense of perspective is never a bad thing.