How news organizations are experimenting with ‘digestible digital weeklies’ on mobile devices

In the world of magazines, monthly printing provides content in tidy but untimely bundles, while Web posting does so in immediate but disorderly bursts.

Hoping to seize on the advantages of both models while ditching the downsides, two venerable monthly magazine brands are experimenting with a third publishing option that’s somewhere in the middle: digestible digital weeklies.

Enter Esquire Weekly for iPad and The Atlantic Weekly for iPad and iPhone, launched in May and June, respectively.

The iPad turned three in April, and much of the conversation in the news business since its launch has been about how to make tablet Web browsing better (by designing responsive sites) and how to best adapt the print product to the tablet (by adding interactive bells and whistles to existing stories and layouts with an app).

That made sense: not only did infrastructure already exist in those two spaces, but it also wasn’t clear how, where and when tablets would be used — mainly because, until August 2011, fewer than 10 percent of Americans owned them.

In May the figure was up to 34 percent, according to Pew, a number more appealing to publishers who may have been hesitant to divert resources to what might have remained a niche device. Moreover, as more research is conducted into how media is consumed on tablets and when it is consumed, publishers should be more confident in their ability to make informed decisions when embarking on tablet projects.

With Esquire Weekly and The Atlantic Weekly, two monthly legacy print publications are trying different formulas for getting compact editions in front of readers with a frequency they can’t achieve in print and a level of curation they can’t achieve online. The two take different approaches to content selection, target audience and distribution, but what’s most important about these new initiatives is what they have in common: ease and frequency of delivery, tender editorial care, digestible length and, surely, low cost of production.

They’re also, crucially, products that could only work on the tablet.

Esquire Weekly

Published during weeks that the monthly magazine lies dormant, Esquire Weekly is offered free to digital subscribers in the same Apple Newsstand iPad app as the monthly edition. A major goal of the weekly is to turn monthly readers on to what’s offered at Esquire.com, said Joe Keohane, senior editor of Esquire Digital, adding that Esquire is working on allowing readers to purchase single issues.

The overlap between Esquire’s Web readers and its print readers is less than 10 percent, editor-in-chief David Granger has told Mashable. Esquire Weekly bridges that gap by providing content with varying degrees of exclusivity. Brief culture pieces by Stephen Marche and politics pieces by Charles P. Pierce are published online soon after appearing in the weekly, with some tweaks.

“My Huddled Masses,” an advice column by A.J. Jacobs, and “The Field Report,” Nate Hopper’s recap of the latest issue of Cosmopolitan, are published online later, with an “Originally Published in Esquire Weekly” tag attached. Esquire Weekly consists mostly of visual front-of-book fare and quick-hit thought pieces, compiled by a small staff.

“It’s important that this thing not be as much of a bath as the monthly,” Keohane said, drawing a contrast between the experience of luxuriating in the monthly magazine and consuming the weekly magazine during one 30- or 45-minute train ride. His other analogy: the Web offers fast food, the monthly magazine offers fine dining, and the weekly’s a sit-down restaurant.

On the surface, Esquire Weekly seems like a supplementary, cheap-to-produce extra to toss at readers, keeping subscribers happy and maybe enticing a few non-subscribers to sign up for the $19.99 yearly subscription. (Granger called Esquire Weekly “a little gift” in his announcement of the product.)

But the weekly is surprisingly beefy and fun to consume, hardly the afterthought compilation of repurposed material I feared. It feels so much like the monthly magazine — designed by the same team and presented with that same Esquire panache — that I could see this being the primary way some readers get their Esquire fix. It’s easy to forget to return to the monthly magazine as many times as it takes to finish it, and it’s true that the website’s a lot to wade through, particularly on a tablet where browsing never feels quite right.

The weekly’s design is pleasing, and the stories are fresh and right around that Goldilocks length. As Keohane put it: “We want to marry the agility of the Web with the design and editorial standards of the monthly.”

The Atlantic Weekly

When digital ad revenue at The Atlantic exceeded print ad revenue for the first time, Jeremy Peters of The New York Times called the brand “a collection of successful Web sites that also happens to put out a magazine once a month.”

A consequence of that hyper-digital focus is that The Atlantic posts an overwhelming amount of content across its flagship site and its two main offshoots, TheAtlanticwire.com and TheAtlanticCities.com. The Atlantic Weekly highlights the best pieces from the week that even the most zealous Atlantic connoisseur could have missed, said Geoffrey Gagnon, a senior editor and editor of the new magazine.

Simpler, even, than The New Yorker’s gorgeous, soft-spoken app, The Atlantic Weekly’s design gets out of the way of each issue’s content; six stories from the various sites and one piece from the archives are told almost exclusively with words (which makes it easier to publish on both iPad and iPhone). There’s also a photo gallery at the end of each issue. No pop-ups, no videos. “We purposely aren’t articulating a specific formula” for how stories are chosen, Gagnon said, but selections are intended to be the most ambitious pieces from the week — the longest, deepest, most thoughtful stories from the three sites.

The Atlantic Weekly is sold — for $1.99 per issue or $2.99 per month — in a Newsstand app separate from the monthly’s magazine’s non-Newsstand app. It’s purposefully a distinct product, Gagnon said, but he was vague about the audience goals — maybe there’s a new potential audience out there that finds the Web too fast-paced and print too static, or maybe it’ll mostly appeal to Atlantic super-fans.

Gagnon said The Atlantic Weekly is part of the company’s overall effort to bring innovative products, such as e-books, to readers looking for new ways to consume content. “Readers are increasingly busy, and the Internet is an increasingly clogged environment,” Gagnon said. “There’s value in curation.”

Neither “lean-back” nor “lean-in”

For as much as “lean-back” has become the buzz word of choice for tablet publishing — and indeed, Keohane and Gagnon both used the term to describe their products — tablets offer a wide range of experiences.

That tablet users pull out their devices for long stretches of time in the evening on the couch or in bed should be no small consideration in how we design our products, but users also use their iPads sitting straight up on the train ride home, or for 20 minutes at the doctor’s office, or for five minutes to check their Twitter feeds. In Chicago, an ‘L’ ride is hardly a lean-back-with-a-glass-of-scotch environment, but I see more and more tablet use on the train.

Smaller app experiences like those offered by Esquire Weekly and The Atlantic Weekly fit nicely into our lives, and they introduce some order to the chaos of the Web. The weeklies respect not only that readers are busy but also that they’re capable of paying attention to something for longer than five minutes.

The two aren’t the first to use the tablet form to either speed up publishing or slow it down. Since it launched in 2010, The Wall Street Journal app has included a “Now Edition” that offers an up-to-the-minute print-like experience. New York Magazine includes a “Latest News” page to keep its app fresh between weekly issues. The Awl’s Weekend Companion for iOS, a collection of five pieces from the Web, is based on the premise that “None of us have the time — or the inclination! — to keep up with everything that happens on the Internet during the rigors of the week.”

In arguing against tablet-native journalism, Reuters’ Felix Salmon argued that the value of the Awl’s paid Weekly Companion “is actually in the way that the editors have subtracted a huge amount of the content available on the website.”

I’d argue that’s just one advantage of publishing specifically for the tablet. The other is design — either the get-out-of-the-way approach of The Atlantic or the souped-up, magazine-like approach of Esquire. The former provides mostly freedom from distraction; the latter provides immersive, engaging design. Either way, it takes a tablet.

Finally, there’s reason to be excited about what tablet-native publishing (if not tablet-native journalism) can achieve, and with relatively little extra money and time required, publishers have no excuse not to try.

Correction: This article originally misstated where Jeremy Peters works; he writes for The New York Times, not The Wall Street Journal.

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