May 13, 2014 Last Updated 2:32 pm

When an app goes bad: another update for The Economist

Publisher struggles with its Newsstand app, though much of the problems may originate on the reader’s side

The app for The Economist yesterday received yet another update as the publisher attempts to work out the app’s bugs. It must be frustrating, as this new update is the 12th update in a row where the app description text starts out “Dear Reader” – that is never good.

TheEcon-iPad-coverThe update is an attempt to fix a number of problems, the worst of which is crashing at opening. But all the updates this year – there have been four of them – also try to speed up the issue downloading.

But early reviews for the update are not encouraging, with readers still complaining about crashes and slow issue downloads. Nonetheless, my own experience is that while the app does hog memory, leading to stuttering performance, the app did not crash for me, nor were the issue downloads excessively slow.

So what is going on?

It may be that owners of older iPads are coming up against a performance wall. I certainly would not want to try and use this app on an older model iPad. My third generation iPad, called the New iPad at its release, struggles with some apps including this one, but it generally gets by. My new iPad mini retina model had no problems with new apps, on the other hand.

The Economist’s app has always been a bit of an outlier. When it was first released in November of 2010 one got the sense that the publisher was a reluctant digital pioneer.

“Our readers have always preferred The Economist in print because it is a lean-back, immersive reading experience,” said Oscar Grut, the Economist’s managing director of digital editions. “The Internet has not been a threat so far, because it cannot replicate this reading experience.”

The first reviews of the new iPad edition, and its companion iPhone app, were decidedly mixed. I wrote at the time (see original TNM post here) that the “new apps do not contain a lot of bells and whistles. The editors do not appear interested in enhanced content like animation, embedded video or other content created specifically for these e-editions.”

TheEcon-iPad-featureI applauded the fact that the app was not a replica edition, but appeared to be following the model set by The New York Times and Financial Times (which soon pulled their app because they did not want to share revenue with Apple). The app was reformatting the text from the print edition into an easy to read tablet edition, but was treating the tablet platform like a website, locking in stories into standard layouts. The app, in other words, was closely tied to the back-end CMS rather than design software such as InDesign.

Other early articles on the apps called them “barebones and featureless” and “boring”.

But The Economist seems to have done quite well with its digital editions, why? The answer lies in the simple fact that the magazine has a very loyal readership, one that is upscale, often tied to the financial industries, and more likely to be tablet owners.

As for any doubts the publishing team may have had about digital editions, they seem to have evaporated pretty quickly.

“When people are reading The Economist on their iPad, they’re reading it for two hours,” Andrew Rashbass, then CEO of The Economist Group. “And the way they consume it is absolutely the way they consume the magazine. If you remember when the iPad was launched, they didn’t talk about the functionality of the iPad, or the specs, they just had pictures of people leaning back. That was what Steve Jobs’ brilliance was.”

The Economist today has about the same total circulation as it did a few years ago, but the numbers have shifted. In its December 2011 publisher’s statement, the magazine had 791,275 paid print subscribers and was selling 47,063 single copy print editions. It had a small number of digital replica copies it was claiming, but had 39,194 non-replica digital editions it could count (subscriptions and single copy).

In its latest report, print has fallen to 768,389, but non-replica digital editions have climbed to 67,206. This would be considered a best case scenario for many publishers as digital production and distribution is less costly.

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But there is a potential stone in the sock, if you will. The app, which is getting long in the tooth, is not performing for all readers and switching to a completely different app, as some magazines have done, would involve a lot of pain on the part of the reader. Some publishers have resorted to launching an app just for their issue archives so that readers could continue to access older issues.

The Economist, being a weekly, decided long ago that they wanted an app that did not require redesigning their digital editions from scratch – and a replica edition would not work for Apple’s ecosystem (and is apparently only producing modest results where it is being employed). So they may feel stuck with the old app, constantly issuing updates (23 of them) since the release of version 2.0 of the app.

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