Thursday, April 19, 2012

The University of St. Thomas launches a tablet edition of its magazine into Apple's Newsstand; editors choose to use the Mag+ platform, then find their contact is an alum

I admit it, I have a soft spot in my heart for digital publishing projects that come out of a school setting. One of the very first magazines ported over to the iPad came out of a project at Abilene Christian University (ACU) when they launched a tablet edition for The Optimist back on April 6, 2010!
Yesterday afternoon the University of St. Thomas, a private, Catholic liberal arts university in Minnesota, released an iPad edition for its "flagship publication" (as the app description describes it).

This tablet edition is fun to compare with that early app from ACU. Where The Optimist was simply a replica edition in the most simplistic form, St. Thomas Magazine features an embedded video introduction, embedded audio, and native tablet designed pages with scrolling texts and photo galleries. For the most part the digital edition is designed to be read in portrait, but those galleries are to be viewed in landscape.

The photography is gorgeous here, even if those photos of snowy days had me shivering a bit.

The app and the content are free, as you'd expect for a publication of this type. There are two publications available in the library of the app that can be downloaded: the Winter 2012 edition of the magazine and a small promotional brochure. The Winter edition weighs in at 231.1 MB but is a pretty quick download. The promotional publication is very well done and completely native, as well. Unlike the magazine, it was designed to so it could be read in both portrait and landscape.

The magazine is the product of the University Relations department. Brian C. Brown, who is Director of Publications, Senior Editor, and Mike Ekern, who is Director of Photography, led the charge to create the new tablet edition.

"What pushed us in this direction would be a couple things," Brown told me yesterday afternoon. "I think the last figures at the end of 2011 were that they were 55 million iPads out there. They sold 3 million more, of course, just in the weekend that the iPad 3 was released. When we think about 20 percent of our audience – with a college educated audience maybe that's going to be a little higher – almost 20 percent for the U.S. owning a tablet, it just seemed to us a safe direction to go in."

"What were looking for was just an opportunity – as you see with a lot of the multimedia pieces we have – is to make more of a seamless user experience. Where in the print magazine they'd have to read the article then go to the web extras, here we can provide those for them," Brown said.

Brown credits Ekern for being "at the forefront of a lot of the technology changes we've had in our department." Together they began searching for a digital publishing solution that they could recommend to create the magazine app.

They looked at the Adobe Suite "but that was really priced out of our range," Brown admitted. "We understood that this is going to be a new venture for us, and we didn't have a lot of extra resources around to invest at this time."

"Because its a relatively new technology (tablets) we're in that difficult spot to keep having to prove the worth of that product first. So we did some research and we found a product called Mag+."
Left: cover of the Winter 2012 edition opens with a video introduction; Middle: the Table of Contents page with its scrolling text box; Right: the edition features plenty of photograph, much of it, unlike this shot, intended to be viewed in landscape.

"In a bit of serendipity as Mike (Ekern) and I were doing our research and really landed on Mag+, and we were ready to present that idea to our vice president," Brown related, "we ended up finding out through the contact, they said, well our sales rep for the U.S. is Mike Haney."

"Well, not only is Mike Haney a graduate of the University of St. Thomas, he worked in our department as a student, and our graphic designer knew him and that's who he worked with. Of course, we knew he had been working at Popular Science."

(TNM's two-part interview with Mike Haney, conducted last year, can be found here.)

Mag+, as TNM readers should be well aware, is a plug-in system that works with InDesign.

"We hadn't had anybody using InDesign in our department, our designers have been using Quark," Brown told me. "So I recommended that we seek out freelancers to get us started to help us created the templates that we would use going forward."

Mag+ helped them line up Patrick Albertson to help create the Winter issue you see currently in the iPad app. Brown sees the current issue available as "a quiet launch" with the big launch coming with the Spring issue coming out in mid-May, which Albertson will also help them create.

The two years since the release of The Optimist, to yesterday's release of St. Thomas Magazine, shows the maturity of the tablet publishing platform. Whereas the main goal of the students and facility at ACU was to take the baby step of simply launching an app, today many educators look to tablets as a necessary and effective way of reaching their audience.

Because of this, simply launching an app is no longer as important as producing a product that accurately and effectively represents the university to prospective students, facility and alumni. All three groups with ties to the University of St. Thomas should be very happy with the results so far.

Here is a short scroll through the first part of the Winter 2012 edition of St. Thomas Magazine as seen on the iPad: