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Alumni Magazines Jump to the iPad

As universities look for ways to connect with alumni and students, campus periodicals are launching digital editions for mobile devices, particularly the iPad.

Like Campus Technology itself, many college publications are taking the digital plunge--or are busy planning for the transition. And when you consider the stratospheric growth in the use of mobile devices, it's not altogether surprising. According to the Pew Research Center's State of the News Media 2012, tablet ownership grew nearly 50 percent in the second half of 2011. Further, the report noted, "the newest mobile devices, particularly tablets, may provide a particularly good environment for magazines. Research shows that people read more long-form content on the new devices and that they spend more time on magazine apps specifically than with those of other media."

Whether an e-pub is a replacement for--or a complement to--an existing print periodical, campus editors are expressing excitement at the possibilities. Among them is Adrianne Bee, editor of San Francisco State Magazine, who recently launched an iPad version of her publication. "With the app, we are not confined to our print edition's 24 pages of content," noted Bee. "For example, our books department, which briefly highlights faculty and alumni publications, is now offering readers the chance to tap once to read sample chapters, as well as watch and listen to these authors reading from their latest works."

For editors, the interactive nature of the iPad makes it easier to imbue stories with richness and depth. "It's all about bringing the pages to life," continued Bee, "whether we are showcasing a myth-busting alumna engaged in an explosive science experiment, or enabling our readers to hear, through our historical archives, a first-person account of a man who survived a fall from the Golden Gate Bridge during its construction 75 years ago."

It's a sentiment shared by Ed Madison, a graduate teaching fellow in the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication, whose Mobile Media Production class created OR Magazine during the 2012 spring term. "People are astonished by OR Magazine and the sophistication of the publication," he noted. "It looks and feels professional."

Madison was particularly impressed with the "limitless creativity" of the medium. As an example, he cited the cover of the magazine's spring edition. Tap on the photo of boxer Nathan Wallner and he comes to life, sparring with the reader.

Another advantage, for both publisher and reader, is the opportunity to update and add content between issues. As an example, Bee recounted how, at press time for one of their print editions, a recent grad had embarked on a goodwill motorcycle ride from San Francisco to Pakistan. "We were able to slip a video update from this grad into the app version, as a supplement to the print story, to show readers that he made it to his destination and what the last leg of his journey entailed."

E-pubs are an evolving art, however, and campus publishers must sift through usage data to determine the right mix of print, still images, and multimedia that works for their readership. At OR Magazine, says Madison, the most popular features with readers are "interactive slideshows, imbedded videos, and an overall sense of surprise and discovery in the publication."

It's a feature set that jibes quite closely with the experience of Margie Smith-Simmons, news and media director at Indiana University Communications, which launched a digital edition of its Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Alumni Magazine (IUPUI) in the spring of 2011. According to her, the most popular digital features are the hyperlink interaction, videos, slideshows, pinch and zoom, and audio.

In searching for the right mix, however, publishers must be careful not to throw the multimedia equivalent of the kitchen sink at readers. "We did receive complaints about the large download size," confirmed Smith-Simmons, "so it was necessary for us to improve the optimization to enable quicker downloads with enhanced interactive features." A customer review on the iTunes page for San Francisco State Magazine hinted at a similar frustration: "Impossible to download, tried several times."

Selecting a Publishing Platform
When it comes to creating an app, the question of build, buy, or lease inevitably comes up. "If you are open to the possibility of using an outside vendor, as we did, I would suggest taking a good look at existing apps to see what you like and what you don't," recommended Bee. "I would certainly look well beyond university publications to apps of every kind. After all, we are in competition for our readers' time, and there are plenty of commercial magazines out there vying for their attention."

In researching outside vendors, Bee suggested that schools first "make a list of elements you must have, ones it would be nice to have, and those you want to avoid."

In launching their new digital periodicals, both Indiana University Communications and Madison at Oregon University opted for Adobe's new Digital Publishing Suite (DPS). Madison actually requested beta-stage access to the new DPS system back in the winter of 2011. For Madison, the choice of Adobe made sense because DPS is built on top of InDesign, "the dominant page layout software that we already teach and is familiar to our students."

It was a similar story at IU. "We chose Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite because of our existing relationship with Adobe," explained Smith-Simmons. "DPS is largely based on InDesign, for which Indiana University has an enterprise license, and is the preferred desktop-publishing tool."

Despite both schools' familiarity with InDesign, both Madison and Smith-Simmons warned against underestimating the challenge of transitioning from print to digital. "The learning curve associated with converting the print publication into an engaging tablet publication was our biggest challenge," confirmed Smith-Simmons.

Even if the editorial and art team can successfully make the transition to digital, there are equally important marketing and distribution questions that must be resolved. Among the questions that campus publishers must answer:

  • Do we continue to produce a print publication?
  • What e-platforms (iPad, Android, browser-based) will we support? What devices do our readers prefer?
  • What will be the relationship between the magazine's website and the digital publication?
  • Is the sales force ready to sell advertising using a new model?
  • What kind of reader and advertiser data will be generated and how will it be used?

"Interactive tablet publications in higher education are fairly new," added Smith-Simmons, who acknowledged that many of these questions cannot be answered overnight. "We are still exploring how best to promote and increase adoption rates." For now, IU continues to publish a print edition, and is working on expanding its digital platform to include Android and other mobile operating systems.

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