A Mad Magazine Experiment with iPad Gone Sour

| Analysis

Back in 2010, I said good-bye to paper and started moving all my magazine subscriptions to digital versions on an iPad. Here's an update on how that project went. Hint: the technology didn't develop well, and I'm is going back to paper. For now.


In September of that year, I wrote:

... I’ve started a pilot project to eliminate most of my paper magazine subscriptions and convert to digital format on the iPad. Of course, this has been possible previously on the Mac in some cases, but the size and portability of the iPad creates a critical psychological mass that allows one to take such a project more seriously.

In the course of this project, I made some assumptions that the technology of magazines on an iPad would smooth out any wrinkles, and I'd be off and running in a glorious paperless future.

It didn't turn out that way.

What Went Wrong?

Here's what happened to me.

1. The iPad's 9.7 inch display a tad too small for a standard magazine as it's often laid out, especially if the PDF format is adhered to. This calls for imaginative presentation, which is seldom done well. More on that below.

2. Out of sight, out of mind. This is a big one. When a paper magazine is on a coffee or breakfast table, it's on your mind. That same cover that was designed to lure you into buying at the newsstand does its job reminding you to read at home.

On the iPad, you must typically launch an app like Apple's Newsstand or Zinio, navigate past possible ads (unless you set the right preference), select the magazine, then select the issue. At this point, in some cases, you might also have to wait for the digital magazine to download on first reading. This nesting, the out of sight, out of mind factor and the time delay before you can start reading creates friction and disincentive.

I would love to have a dedicated iPad home page of just magazine issue icons in an array. The current issue would always be on top and the one I get when I tap. But that's not likely to happen any time soon.

Next: Yet more problems.

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Lee Dronick

Hmmmm, just last week I decided not to renew my subscription to MacWorld because I no longer think that it is worth money. I was thinking of finding an emagazine substitute for my needs. Of course the bridge has not been burned and MacWorld will for months send me renewal notices.


I’m not so sure that upcoming generations will care if magazines (or newspapers) exist in any form.  They have grown up reading about anything they wish to on niche websites catering to their interests (the role magazines filled for us prior to 1996) or news aggregate websites for a wider variety of topics.

I too had issues (heh, a pun) moving just a single magazine (WIRED) onto my iPad.  For one, it took almost two years of email and phone support calls to get them to STOP sending me a duplicate paper version every month.  Plus some of the other ones you mentioned; about switching devices or services without losing all your back issues, and the space the downloaded magazines take up on your iPad.  (another reason to simply read things online)

I personally have no trouble actually reading magazines and comics on my iPad though and have enjoyed the little bonus animations and videos (in the case of WIRED) that are sometimes included.  Kind of brings back memories of pop-up book interactivity.

Finally, I think your “out of sight” argument is more about your own personal habits than any failing of the iPad or digital magazines.  I do like your idea of a virtual magazine “pile” to pick through.  Maybe an app that detects when it’s laying down on a dentist’s coffee table…  grin


Funny thing, I went to other way. I dropped ALL my dead tree and virtual dead tree subscriptions. I did it because it seemed wasteful to have something I’d read once or twice and, as you mentioned so many of them did the on line version so badly I just decided to set off in a new direction.  I only get me stuff over the web. For tech stuff there’s TMO, and MacRumors etc. For other stuff there’s BBC World Service, CBC, Radio Australia, Deutsche Welle, and a number of other news sites. I even get my science news from Science Daily and PLoS. Tumblr works as a general interest source as does Google.  For offline reading I have a good assortment of PDFs from PLoS in iBooks. To kill time in a waiting room I have an assortment of games. I just don’t have any interest in subscribing to Car & Driver or Esquire or Scientific American, or O or Popular Mechanics, or Rolling Stone, or any of the rest of them.

Colin Rose

Have you tried Next Issue? Maybe it’s only available in Canada. It provides that virtual magazine pile you want. For $15 per month you get all the popular US and Canadian mags in iPad format including MacWorld.

Scott B in DC

I get MacWorld and Hemmings Classic Cars as e-magazines. I like having both on the iPad because I can change my mood and switch between the two. It is also cheaper for the subscriptions and I can bookmark any article. In fact, it makes clipping easier when I can copy-paste into Evernote to save info.

randal lyons

to bad you don’t read french. Lapresse + app for ipad is amazing. Delivered everywhere each morning at 05h, free, with so much content that each day I scream that every newspaper, journal, magazine don’t follow there example.
Try it just to see the potentiel of the format.
Glad to have signed up as this site is one that I visit daily. Thanks


I’m highly disappointed that you didn’t mention Mad Magazine! What a click-bait headline! haha!

I appreciate the flexibility of having both digital and paper versions of a publication. They fit my way of consuming, but it depends on what and where I’m reading.

I subscribe to the New Yorker. I get both paper and digital. I mostly “discover” in paper but then I’ll read in depth on the iPhone.

I subscribe to Mad Magazine (really) and while I get the digital version it’s only on the iPad which I can never pry out of my wife’s hands. No iPhone version and for that I’m disappointed.

Being an old guy, I also get a daily paper. They have a digital version (web, iPad and iPhone) but I never read it because a) it’s too difficult to access and b) I read the paper in the morning and consume it fully on paper.

So I like the hybrid approach and I would like it if I could access all of my paid content on the iPhone because when I travel, I don’t take paper since I don’t have to turn off the device anymore and my digital reading goes way up.

Paper is a renewable resource so I don’t feel badly about the trees.


I’m highly disappointed that you didn’t mention Mad Magazine!

Agreed. I’d like to think that JM read Mad.

John Martellaro

geoduck:  Of course I did! (What, me worry?)


I have seen a mixed bag with tablet (iPad) versions. The best I have seen is Bloomberg Businessweek - easy to navigate and easy to read. New Yorker is good but not as easy as BBw. The Atlantic is awful, which is a pity. I gave up and now read it only on paper.



Your post mortem on e-magazine’s failure to thrive provides the starting materials and an opportunity for some plucky start-up, or perhaps even the industry en masse to move to e-magazine version 2.0. From my read of your deconstruction, this is fundamentally an engineering problem, that with the right focus on simplicity informed by human behaviour, could be solved. Given the direction of paid subscriptions to magazines, I should think that publishers would have real incentive to make this work, even if it required some initial capital investment and retooling.

I, for my part, have no time for paper, full stop. If handed to me, I immediately hand it back and request the soft copy. It’s not only about protecting trees and the environment, one motivation, but my data. Unless it’s in my database, which is immediately backed up online, it doesn’t exist for me, and I don’t have it.

This also means that I make due with what’s available. Granted, I have practically no time at present for recreational reading (something that my wife has brought to my attention recently, with a request that I correct this), but the few publications that I read, like the Planetary Report, I simply download from the site and read in sub-optimal PDF format, but it works well enough on either my iPad or MBP.

Perhaps, as a result of having spent most of my life in low-resource countries, my expectations are no longer first world.

Chris Nielsen

I will be hanging on to my iPad magazine subs thank you.  Reason:  Here in the south Pacific, print magazine subscriptions for imported magazines can run you hundreds of dollars a year each, whereas on the iPad I am often able to get a whole year’s subs for what a single print issue would have cost me.  Also the Nat Geo mag looks more 10x more awesome on the iPad than in print, with inline videos and so forth.

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