The Evolution of the Tablet Newspaper: M&G iPad App review

The Mail and Guardian (M&G) continues to be the exception to the norm. In an industry where circulation numbers have continued their downward spiral, latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) have shown that single copy sales of the M&G have continued to increase and that the paper‘s circulation now exceeds 50 000 copies a week. Surprisingly, this number and growth excludes digital editions of the newspaper with offerings on both the Kindle and iPad showing early promise. A digital edition for Android users is also in the pipeline which is a clear indication that the newspaper has no intention of merely resting on its laurels but has one eye firmly fixed on its long term sustainability in the digital age. This is a very obvious observation, if one samples the digital edition of the M&G for the iPad.

The iPad edition of the M&G shares the same cover with the print edition, but that is where most similarities end. Although both share the same content, the iPad edition makes effective use of tablet technology to augment the story.

I am an avid reader of the M&G (both online and in print) and was reluctant to sample their iPad digital edition because most of the content is freely available online and subscribing to a tablet edition of a newspaper comes with certain limitations, most notably, the difficulty in sharing your newspaper with family and friends and the ability to read your newspaper at your favourite coffee shop without looking like a smug wannabe. To be honest, I was expecting almost a pdf version of the print edition, and notwithstanding the discount in price ($1.99 vs R23.50), it did not seem like enough of a discount to justify all the advantages of the print edition I would be giving up. There are rare occasions when I delight at being wrong!
Although still some way away from challenging, The Daily Prophet (Wizarding newspaper from Harry Potter that utilized video to augment the news articles), which is what I believe should be the model that digital editions of newspapers should strive towards, the iPad edition of the M&G showed that it had such potential in it‘s DNA. The App is easy to use and navigate within and one gets the distinct feeling that the digital edition is being compiled as a stand alone version to the print edition. Most of the stories appear in both, but relevant animations and slide shows within the digital edition (although gimmicky at times), leaves the reader with the distinct impression that the team who put together the digital edition are trying to truly enhance the tablet experience. I suspect that the team are limited in this endevaour only by the size of the digital edition which is capped at 150 Mb per edition.
The M&G App for the iPad is very intuitive and easy to navigate within

Since the high standard of journalism is common to both, I would prefer to review the M&G app by firstly discussing the unique features of the iPad digital edition. Firstly, all pictures appear infinitely better when viewed on the digital edition and although an obvious statement, there is a “œYour world in pictures“ segment which due to high quality, high resolution images proves the old saying that sometimes “œa picture is worth a thousand words“. For example, the Hindu festival of Holi, known as the festival of colours, is best appreciated not by any accompanying story on its origins etc. but by high resolution pictures of the revelry and celebrations experienced on the day. Furthermore, utilization of slide shows means that some stories are accompanied by not only the one solitary “œbest“ picture that appears in the print edition, but many equally good photographs that augment the story.

Touching the image above reveals a sheared sheep with additional info. This is accompanied by the sound of a sheep bleating. Gimmicky but cute!

Another nice touch was the inclusion of embedded links to music videos of a band that was just reviewed. This was great because no matter how good the writer, music needs to beheard to be appreciated. It is easy to navigate the M&G webpage from within the app and purchasing the current issue (and back issues) was very user friendly, as it should be, toensure better sales. I thought it was a nice touch to offer back issues at half price ($0.99), because the Mail and Guardian contains articles and content that don‘t get stale easily.
There is however room for improvement. It is unacceptable that the digital edition of the newspaper is only available late on a Friday afternoon when the print edition has already been on the stands from much earlier in the day. (Update: Mail & Guardian got in contact with me to tell me that the digital edition is available on Friday from early morning, and that the specific issue I had was a once off issue. Good to know…) One of the perks of a paper version was the ability to share an article with a friend but the in-app article sharing features was the perfect way to correct that disparity. I, in fact now had the ability to share an article I enjoyed with many or all of my twitter followers and this would have been great, had it worked! Multiple attempts to successfully share an article on twitter failed, as did similar endeavors to share articles on Facebook (In Facebook, the article appeared as a picture rather than a link to the article online).
Another criticism of the app would be that I think it is better to have articles that scroll from top to bottom, rather than swipe to turn the page. My logic for this preference is that, when I am reading the paper and I come across an article I do not like, I merely turn the page and move on to the next one. Having to swipe through multiple pages or to navigate via the pageview to get to the next article is cumbersome.
I always expect the digital versions of print media to be cheaper, but I expect the content to be the same. The iPad edition of the Mail and Guardian does not contain special supplementary pull out segments, the tendors, notices and classifieds section and all importantly, the weekly crossword and Sudoku puzzle. I was therefore left with the feeling that I was paying less for a diluted edition of the weekly paper I enjoy. Perhaps other readers don‘t even glance at these sections in the print copy. For them, I suppose the reduced price is a bonus.
If the issues I raised were rectified ( time of release, functional sharing feature, top down scrolling and inclusion of missing sections ), then I would gladly accept the reduced subscriptions and switch from print to digital format. If these preferences are not important to you, then perhaps you should consider converting now. The M&G iPad app is impressive and the active pursuit of tablet subscriptions has already placed the newspaper a few rungs above the rest of the pack in the troubled newspaper industry. Although, for now, I do not foresee many M&G print subscribers switching to the digital edition, I believe that the app will continue to evolve and improve and eventually start attracting new readers to the Mail and Guardian stable.