How AOL’s Editions iPad app seeks to master the digital magazine experience

AOL unveiled a centerpiece of its mobile content strategy this week -- a new iPad app called Editions that blends some of the most-successful features of other popular news-browsing apps with its own new ideas.

The cover of an Editions daily issue.

Editions is another attempt at a mass-market iPad news app, like Flipboard, Pulse or Zite, that bring you news not just from one source or niche, but from the entire Web. They aim to be anything to anyone.

Although AOL is later to hit the market than several similar competitors, it has taken that extra time to learn from successful apps and incorporate the best ideas with their own new approaches.

I met with AOL’s vice president of mobile David Temkin for a preview of the app. Here is what stands out.

It weighs the importance of a story. The algorithms that build your daily edition look for signals of overall importance, such as whether a story appears near the top of the homepage on its original site, or if it is being shared heavily on Twitter. The goal is to burst the “filter bubble” and rekindle some of the sense of shared experience people get from reading the same top stories on the front page of a daily paper.

When viewing an article, you can tell the app whether you like or dislike topics or sources.

That said, Editions also is aggressive about personalization. It uses a system that Zite readers will find very familiar. As you read each story, you can tell the app you want to see more or fewer stories in the future from that source or related subjects. You can also actively train each content section to be more appealing by designating favorite news sources. Some sections have special tag options. For example, the Technology section lets you follow products and companies, the Sports section can follow teams, and the Entertainment section can follow particular celebrities you like.

The app also learns your preferences passively from what you read, so even if you never bother to train it actively, it should learn your tastes over time. Editions is combing through thousands of news sources now, and always adding more, Temkin said. Any story from an AOL-owned property (Patch, Huffington Post, Engadget, etc.) is displayed in the app, because they own the rights, while outside sources get loaded in a Web browser.

Editions includes local news. While most of its content sections are topical, there is a local news section that uses the iPad’s current location to gather nearby news stories. In my testing so far this seems to be filled mostly with Patch content, though a couple of the Patch sites nearest to me don’t show in my app. Temkin assures me they’re still developing this section and adding sources.

This localization is a challenge the other mass-market iPad news apps don’t take on. Algorithmically finding relevant local news for every community in the country is a difficult order. AOL’s ownership of Patch probably makes this worth trying for Editions, but to be a strong feature for users it will need to aggregate other local blogs and news media sites well.

An example of a browsing page within an issue section.

Editions also shares The Daily’s notion that iPad readers prefer getting a single bundle of news once a day, rather than a constantly updating stream of news. Unlike The Daily, Editions lets you pick the time of day you want your magazine created and delivered. So if you prefer to read in the evenings after work, you can have a fresh publication then.

Another thing Temkin thinks readers will find appealing about each daily edition: "It ends." There are specific sections, each with 15 stories. You read it cover-to-cover for 20-25 minutes and you know what you need to know for the day, he said. That’s different from other browsing apps that have endless sources, sections and stories to choose from.

Finally, a note on the design. More than any other similar app, Editions tries to recreate the appearance and experience of a print magazine. The limited sections and article count are part of that strategy. Each edition also gets a replica magazine cover -- a full screen image with the “Editions” title across the top and even a clever mock mailing label and barcode at the bottom.

Despite the print replica design, the app also includes some smart digital enhancements. The first inside page includes a weather forecast, a week-ahead calendar with your events (pulled from the iPad calendar data) and your friends’ birthdays (pulled from Facebook). You can even send your friends a quick birthday message from that page. This is the kind of essential, wake-up information that could help make Editions part of a reader’s morning routine.

We'll see whether Editions becomes a hit. Temkin says AOL plans a major marketing push, including advertising in many forms of media. The business model plan is to eventually use full-page rich media ads, much like the ones Flipboard is experimenting with.

The big unknown is whether readers will try the app, and stick with it. I think some will. It’s a comfortable experience for the large market of adults with a history of magazine reading. The biggest factor determining its success will be how well its algorithm picks each day’s stories for each of those readers.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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