Tap Tap — Anybody There?

     |    Wednesday, der 6. June 2012

The May issue of Saveur magazine had an extensive article about a cuisine I’d always been interested in: Senegalese. I’ve been to exactly one Senegalese restaurant, in Paris, years ago, having lunch with a friend of a friend, and we had the usual: wolof rice (a rice-and-turkey concoction) and a fish stuffed with lemon and onions (forget the name). A guy at the next table heard us speaking English and introduced himself as an imam for the local Senegalese community who’d trained in the Air Force in Texas during World War II. He assured us that what we’d ordered was good old down-home cooking. The Saveur article, though, made me wonder, since it seemed to have a whole different approach, and indicated that maybe things were a bit more sophisticated in Senegal than I’d figured.


Too bad it’s going to be so hard for me to find out.



But wait, you say. You said you saw the article. What’s the problem? The problem is that I saw it via my iPad subscription, which I foolishly purchased at the beginning of the year. Great! I thought. I can take the iPad into the kitchen, which I already did with a couple of cookbooks which had been Kindle formatted for quick access, and with the excellent Mark Bittman How to Cook Everything app, and I can cook the stuff that appeals to me.


Except I can’t. In fact, I can’t read much of the magazine I spent twenty bucks on back in January. That’s because it’s really not an app at all, except to the point that it works on the iPad. The content of the app, though, is (wait for it, it’s so high tech!) a scan of the magazine! And guess what? The screen of the iPad is at least 20% smaller than a physical copy of Saveur. The magazine already uses a fairly small type-size in its physical edition, and yes, you can zoom in, but that disrupts the reading process as you have to navigate all over the place to follow the text. And what’s really annoying is that the parent company of Saveur, the Bonnier Corporation, publishes some 49 magazines, from Working Mother to TransWorld Ride BMX to Field and Stream, and if I’m not mistaken, most of them are also available from the iTunes Store. And, although I haven’t spent the money to find out, I bet the same sloppy idea is used on each one of them.


When I got my iPad, I already had an iPad subscription to the New Yorker, a magazine I’ve read for years, because it tosses in the iPad access with a paid print subscription. It was easy to set up, and I enjoyed reading the mgazine on the tablet. They’d adjusted the type-size (hang on, I’m showing my age here: I should be using the word „font,“ because there’s no „type“ involved) just enough so that the experience was little different from reading the paper magazine (which I still find I prefer to do except when travelling). The bells and whistles were minimal, as seems appropriate for a staid institution with some goofy edges like the New Yorker: poets and fiction writers read their works, the DVD reviewer gets to narrate a video of his chosen film of the week, there’s the occasional slide show or supplementary video. Unlike with Saveur, some of the ads take you to the product’s website, providing the advertiser with actual immediate statistics about the efficacy of spending money with the magazine.



But where that really takes off is with another of the Condé Nast family, Wired. Of course, you’d expect a magazine aimed at the geekoisie to be loaded with gimmicks and you won’t be disappointed. Wired is still the same monotonous cheerleader for bright! shiny! things! that it’s always been, but I still think that any magazine that’s thinking about going digital beyond having a website ought to download at least one copy. The splash-pages on the features have animations (some of which are annoying, especially the ones with ZOOM! sounds which go off when you’re reading on, say, a plane), there are touch-and-play charts and videos which explain things, the buyer’s guide sections happen all on one page, so you can touch back and forth and compare the goods being rated (and buy them off the page, should you so desire), and the ads…well, the ads are mostly designed with the magazine’s readership in mind. You can whisk off to the website, but you can also interact with many ads without leaving the magazine. New cars have their features all touch-and-see. There’s a goofy beer ad which you can play around with. There are embedded videos. You spend enough time playing around with an issue of Wired and you think, hey, this is the future of magazines!


And yet it’s not: it’s only the beginning. I’m only an end-user, not a programmer. I seriously have no idea how the guts of these things work: I’m only interested in content, both consuming and creating it. There are more ways to interface between print and visual content and the digital realm than I’m capable of conceptualizing, but so far the magazine world isn’t dealing very well with this. I’m aware of two music-mag-apps in the works, one in the U.S. and one in Britain, and this is a field which has the potential to provide some clues to the next step forward. But meanwhile, it appears that most magazines are going the Saveur route — if they’re even bothering.



Which brings me to my last subscription: the New York Times. Boy, what a mess this is. I have a digital-only subscription, which means website and tablet, in my case. It costs $20 a month, which is a lot. I subscribed through the iTunes store, but I’d already subscribed through the Times‚ website, so starting in January for a number of months, I was paying double, but when I wrote the Times, they refused to discuss the iTunes subscription. Eventually (starting June 1, in fact) I got it straightened out, so now I’m only paying once, but this is standard for the cluelessness with which they’ve been going at this whole digital thing. I first started subscribing because free access limited me first to 20, and now to 10 articles a month, which, since I can’t just nip down to the corner and buy a paper, wasn’t very convenient. What I get in return, on the tablet, is pretty neat: the paper’s stories are broken down into categories, and while I can’t set up an alert system for things I’m particularly interested in, nor can I print anything out (although I can from the website), there are good slide-shows, videos, and other graphics which enhance the newspaper experience. I can also save articles for future reference.


What the Times doesn’t have, though, is ads. I’ve been reading daily for six months, and when there is an ad on a page, it tends to be in-house. There have been ads for a couple of movies, and at the moment I’m seeing one for some Italian telecom, but when you hear this august newspaper screaming about loss of revenue to the digital world, I’m astonished they can’t sell space on their tablet app. There should be a different ad on almost every page! This is the Times! I have no idea whose fault this is, but since I have actual friends working at the Times, I’d rather they stop hemorrhaging money so they can stop worrying about being employed and having a pension once they retire.


There’s more to this issue, too: apparently Apple’s to blame for some of the problems, and there’s also the problem of magazines in general, but I’ll have more on this in the weeks to come. Meanwhile, Saveur, start thinking about all those one-star ratings you have over on the iTunes store. Except for the one from the guy who couldn’t figure out how to download the June issue, you deserve each and every one I read.