Life Without Print Media: Going All In With My iPad (Part 1)

Until recently, I would start each day by walking out to my driveway and gathering up the day’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. I’d then sit down over a cup of coffee and begin my daily ritual of reading it. Later in the day, when the mail arrived, it might contain the latest issue of Time magazine or Entertainment Weekly. On Fridays, Businessweek would appear at my doorstep. On Sundays, I have the New Your Times delivered. I also subscribe to several monthly publications. I made the time to read all of them.

On one particular day, I began to question my rationale behind all of this print media I was accumulating. Media that — in a matter of days — would get tossed in the recycling bin. “Why,” I asked myself, “was I reading all of this print media when I have an iPad? Isn’t print media supposed to be on its deathbed? Why was I sticking with a format that will soon depart this life?” Adding fuel to this query, I have more than two dozen news-related apps on my iPad — from the New York Times to Flipboard. Some of them are spectacularly well-designed. Yet, I was rarely using them. Why?

I had two theories to explain this paradox. The first was that, despite what current trends might suggest, print media retains advantages, ones that I was reluctant to abandon. The second was “force of habit”; I was so used to my print media routines that I wasn’t giving the iPad alternative a fair chance. 

That’s when an idea began to form. “Perhaps,” I mused, “I could jumpstart a shift to using the iPad for news if I forced myself to depend on it for awhile.” And so began my grand experiment. I invoked a self-imposed ban on even glancing at any print media for two weeks. Neither would I use my Mac for news access (other than to check Mac sites necessary for my work). 

What would the result be? Could I go cold turkey? Or would I give in before the two weeks were up? Even if succeeded, would two weeks be enough to break my print media addiction?

SFC app

Before starting

Before I embarked on my two week experiment, some advance preparation was required. In particular, the number of news and information apps on my iPad presented me with the “paradox of choice.” I had so many apps to choose from that I had trouble picking which ones to check on a given day. There was no way I was going to use all of them. Should my primary news source be the Chronicle or the Times or CNN or NPR or USA Today or ABC News? Should I supplement these apps with Flipboard or Pulse News of Pulp or Zite? I had to decide on the best of the best.

In the end, I decided to mimic my print media habits as closely as possible. This meant I checked The Chronicle and The Times every day. Similarly, I downloaded each new issue of Time and and Businessweek. At the time, there was no Entertainment Weekly app; the best I could do here was make a Web app icon for the EW home page in Safari.

As for news aggregators, I limited myself to Flipboard (because I especially liked the way it converted my Twitter feed into a magazine layout) and Zite (which did the best job of presenting content overall).

For a quick overview of national news, I occasionally checked USA Today. I’ve never been a fan of its print version, but their iPad app is among the best of the competition.

One big plus regarding my choices is that they were all free. It is true that several of these apps, such as The New York Times, charge a subscription fee. However, one of the minor ironies of the whole digital vs. print debate is that the online subscription fee is waived if you are a print subscriber. In some cases (notably if you get a significant discount on a print subscription), you can wind up getting both the print and online versions for less than the cost of the online version alone. In any case, I was already a print subscriber to all of the publications in question, so there was no additional cost for me.

For simplicity, I omitted monthly magazines from the experiment. That meant that I didn’t have to worry about magazines such as Consumer Reports or Macworld.

With these choices in place, I was ready to begin.

Newspaper apps

On the first morning of the experiment, the first app I launched was The San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper released their iPad app just prior to the start of my experiment. A good thing they did. The web version of The Chronicle, especially their e-edition, was a terrible substitute for the print version. It was hard to navigate and did not scale in way that allowed you to read the text after enlarging it. Their iPad app is a huge improvement. I can easily select which section I want to read. With a finger swipe, I can navigate from article to article. The app even includes a comics section (something not available from the web site) — with the ability to go back and read recent past strips. 

Browsing through The Chronicle iPad app is actually more pleasant than the print version, as I can more easily find and scan through the top articles of the day. As a result, it seemed like I was reading more stories from the iPad app than I did from the print version. The only thing that appears to be missing is a Search option. 

The New York Times app is less appealing than the Chronicle’s. Actually (in keeping with its image), the Times app is rather stodgy — although much better than the overstuffed design of the Times’ website. Regardless, for checking the day’s editorials and opinion pieces — as well as for breaking news and top feature articles — the app is good enough. It also gave me access to The Times’ Most E-mailed articles, something I would not have with the print version. With this app, I was able to check The Times each day, even though my print subscription is just for the Sunday edition.

I also separately paid to get the New York Times Crosswords app. I was skeptical of doing a crossword puzzle on the iPad, but it works impressively well. You can easily change an entry, if you decide it is wrong. Tapping on a clue takes you to its location in the puzzle — and vice versa. Very sweet.

All was not perfect however. For starters, there were times when contending with the iPad got in the way. If I wanted to read while I was eating, I had to be more careful about not spilling food or drink on the iPad (something that didn’t matter nearly as much with print). Occasionally, the Internet connection would balk and an article would not load. At one point, I could not even get the New York Times app to launch; it would display the splash screen and just stall. If I wanted to take the newspaper with me when I left the house, I didn’t necessarily want to cart my $800 iPad around. A print newspaper is cheaper and easily disposable — with less concern about losing it. And, as someone who stares at a computer screen for much of the day, there were times when I would have preferred paper instead of pixels.

Still, none of these were deal-breakers.

A different type of problem emerged when I compared the iPad apps to accessing news via a Web browser, especially on my desktop Mac Pro: the single-app full-screen iPad apps made multi-tasking more difficult. I couldn’t, for example, have my Twitter feed available at the same time that I was looking at a news app. Also, tapping a link in Twitter to one of these newspapers didn’t take me to the relevant app. Rather it took me to a web browser version of the article.

There were further complications if I wanted to save an article. There is no way to simply save a webpage to the desktop, as you can with Safari on a Mac. Instead, my preferred option is to use Instapaper. The problem is that not every news app supports Instapaper. The New York Times is one that does not. In this case, I wound up emailing myself a link to the article, which I later retrieved on my Mac. Not a great solution. Some news apps only allow you to save articles within the app itself. In the end, you’ll wind up with saved articles in Instapaper, email and a half dozen different apps, with no central way to keep track of them all. Not good at all. I wish that Instapaper would either become a universal standard or that Apple would add such a feature that all apps could use.

One more thing. Occasionally, after reading an article, I would want to post a tweet about it. I’ve found no way to get a URL from one of these news apps. Instead, I have to launch Safari, locate the article on the paper’s website and get the link from there. Again, not good. Of course, this is not directly relevant to a print media comparison. But it did become part of my overall reaction to depending just on iPad apps.

What about magazines and the rest of my print-to-iPad conversion? Did I last two weeks without even sneaking a peek at a newspaper? What finally happened when the experiment was over? Is going all iPad even worth the bother? The answers will be in Part 2, coming next week.