Over the previous year, Fairfax Media, publisher of broadsheet newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, embarked on a startlingly unappealing strategy to get their news onto a tablet. Until very recently, readers of the SMH who wanted the paper on an iPad had to be subscribers to the physical edition. For their troubles (and their 200 bucks) they received a PDF version of the print edition. Not exactly the future of interactive media.
This week, Fairfax released a second-generation electronic edition using a redesigned (or just designed) interface and Apple’s in-app subscription function for $8.99 a month. Other major papers like The Australian have already adopted this pay-for-premium approach, so the news that Fairfax was coming to the iPad wasn’t exactly shocking.
Nobody, however, was prepared for just how well they’d do it.
While the Fairfax browser-based websites port the entirety of its print content online, much of it is often buried in the churn of breaking news (or videos of cats/Shane Warne/penguins on unicycles). Instead of drawing on the site design, the app follows the rationale of a newspaper or magazine, ordering articles into discrete sections. Although it’s reminiscent of classic newsprint layout, it’s designed with the logic of a tablet device. Instead of cluttering each page with stories, images are given prominence to highlight one of a few articles.
It’s an elegant solution to the information-overload that afflicts a great deal of website design. Stories are simply and prominently ordered, with no more than six articles to a page. By scaling back the amount of stuff, a reader can more effectively take in the information that’s presented to them.
Perhaps even more importantly, the apps restore the element of curatorship that’s so lacking in online news; the expertise of an editor who prioritises what’s really important or interesting defines the personality of a paper.
While the apps accurately capture the feeling of print, they also improve on the medium in no small way. Embedded into stories is a great deal of rich media, including video (that plays immediately in-app), the ability to share stories via email, Facebook or Twitter, post comments and scroll through sizable galleries of full-screen photographs.
The primacy of images in The SMH and The Age for iPad is genuinely impressive, allowing photos to speak for themselves. Surely there’s great potential for photo essays by Australian photojournalists, a format that simply doesn’t appear in print.
Along with pretty pictures are a variety of interactive features: statistics pop up on overlays in feature stories; the weather section generates up-to-date information on your specific location; sports has a live results feed; and the business section shows ASX quotes.
There’s also the not-insignificant fact that reading on an iPad – particularly anywhere in public – is far less irritating than wrestling with a broadsheet.
Another convenient feature is the ability, borrowed from the incredibly useful Instapaper, to save stories for offline reading. Simply highlight an article with a little star and you can read it without an internet connection anywhere.
Also great is the chance to read specialist sections from earlier in the week, with optional downloads of the Good Weekend, Domain, Epicure, Spectrum, News Review and so forth. You can click on a tab, marked with the size of the download, and the section is cached.
Similarly, the main body of the paper is downloaded as you open the app, which means there’s no waiting around for pages to load as you’re reading. It’s a smart move, despite the short delay at the start.
Browsing is easy: flicking downwards scrolls through an article while sideways transports you to the next. An ever-present pop-down menu reveals a sections menu. The text itself is easy enough to read and, like any number of reader apps, can be resized if you’re a bit squinty.
Intelligently and stylishly designed with convenient saving and sharing features, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald iPad apps are, in short, as good if not better than any of the apps from international mastheads, including the Guardian and the New York Times.
Journalists here at Australian Macworld were disappointed to hear of the vast cuts to editorial staff at Fairfax, not only in sympathy with our colleagues but for the effect their absence would have on the quality of reporting at these two venerable and important institutions. Hopefully these two excellent apps for the iPad will not only define a new way forward for the papers, but will be supported with journalism of the same standard.