Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Chicago Sun-Times releases its first tablet edition; app offers native layouts in portrait, but links out to website rather than embeds media

The Chicago Sun-Times, the daily tabloid that late last year was acquired by Wrapports LLC for $20 million, has launched a new tablet edition into Apple's Newsstand. Chicago Sun-Times for iPad is a natively designed digital edition that has both many things going for it, as well as some annoying deficiencies.
The digital version of the tabloid allows readers to buy a monthly subscription for $4.99, or to buy individual issues for $0.99 a piece.

The Sun-Times, which because of its tabloid size has been a traditional choice of computers, has created issue downloads that will create a warning on the iPads of readers on 3G (and without WiFi). On this particular app, the warning comes on to notify you that you are about to download a file using your mobile carrier. That warning, if you press "cancel" pops back up many times before finally disappearing.

Today's edition weighs in at 113.2MB despite being designed for portrait only reading. The choice of portrait-only, which immediately drew a negative review inside the App Store, is a smart one – the paper is a tabloid, so portrait makes sense, besides saving file size.

But, oddly, the tablet edition uses the web for its multimedia content. A story that appears to have an embedded video actually brings up the paper's website when tapped. The decision saves file space, so I understand the motivation behind not truly embedding the content, but why not store the video on a server that can deliver a video player (such as YouTube, etc.)?

The Daily Video Digest features actually does this, so I see no reason why it can't be standard operating procedure.

If there will be a standard complaint about the tablet edition, other than download sizes, it will be the lack of sections. The tablet edition is one long stream of digital pages. The only way to navigate the app, other than simply swiping, is to tap the page to bring up the thumbnails along the bottom. The cover wisely contains some links to other parts of the paper such as Sports, but otherwise there is no navigation tool at the top such as a TOC.

The Sun-Times has been turned into quite a brain-dead rag by the paper's new owners (despite having one of my favorite tech writers, Andy Ihnatko). But other than the complaints mentioned above, this new tablet edition is a pretty interesting attempt to create a natively designed digital edition for iPad owners. Many of the problems with the new app, such as navigation, can be corrected with an update. As for the editorial content, well, the owners will learn soon enough whether Chicago readers want to pretend they are on the subway in NYC reading the Post.

(In the mid-80s Hearst brought in a New Yorker to their paper in Los Angeles and experimented with creating a tabloid, better to attract LA commuters who took the subway to work – except there was no subway. Eventually the experiment was abandoned and a couple years later Hearst closed down the Herald-Examiner. Luckily for me I had already left to join Copley in Santa Monica.)