Magazine e-Reading Turns Page

Magazine-friendly e-readers are months away. But that hasn’t stopped magazine executives—like kids anticipating the latest electronic toy—from fantasizing about how they’ll bring their content to life on the devices.

While publishers fret about the technical unknowns and whether device makers will undercut their relationship with readers, they’re certain the devices will let their titles strut their stuff in a way they can’t on current e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle, with its static, grey presentation.

“In a fantasy world, you hope you have an opportunity to advance the form,” said Geoff Reiss, vp and general manager of Newsweek Digital, who like many executives is closely watching e-reader development. “It means expressions of multimedia, the ability to comment and have two-way conversations…to have those pages be far less static.” The Kindle, for all its portability and features, “is just scratching the surface,” he added.

Video is a huge area of interest, said Jeanniey Mullen, global executive vp, chief marketing officer for Zinio, a technology company that creates online replicas of magazines’ print editions. E-readers also could let magazines become e-commerce tools by embedding retailer links in fashion spreads.

“It opens up the opportunity to break the mold of the traditional magazine,” said Mullen, whose company is trying to design a tool to let publishers create one e-reader edition that would be compatible with the many devices that are expected to come out.

National Geographic is thinking about how the photo and video material that ends up on the cutting floor could find new life in an e-reader edition. And Bonnier Corp.’s Popular Science has been testing a product called the Pop Sci Genius Guide, a standalone, digital spinoff, in preparation for future e-readers. Execs there predict an e-reader version of Pop Sci will have many of the features they’ve tested with the Genius Guide: video, deeper layers of content behind pages, and animation.

Still, despite all the bells and whistles next-gen e-readers promise, magazine execs still expect the experience on those devices to be more like reading a magazine in print than surfing its Web site. Pop Sci’s “will be more like the experience of a monthly magazine, but enhanced,” said Mark Jannot, the magazine’s editor in chief. “People come to us not for individual articles but for a monthly fix on the future.”

And don’t expect radical changes from The Economist, which has emphasized sameness of its presentation across platforms. When The Economist launched its Kindle edition, it insisted that it be able to port over the graphs and charts that run in print, despite the Kindle’s graphical limitations. Its forthcoming iPhone app also will have a look and feel similar to the print edition.

“When we look at the way people navigate Economist.com, they tend to navigate it via the print,” explained Paul Rossi, the publisher. “We do our utmost to replicate that reading experience.”