The Long + Short is a digital-first publication by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. Its content is clever and engaging, but does it do enough to make up for a frustrating reading experience?
The app has been designed so that the HTML is edited once, and pushed out to multiple platforms. This is neat as a cost-effective way of publishing for maximum audience reach; The Long + Short can be accessed from a desktop, through the Apple and Android stores, and through a mobile-responsive web browser for those on devices without a supporting app. The content can also be read in any orientation, and it all reflows nicely when the device is rotated. To top it off, the app is lightweight, and the issues can be viewed almost instantly without a long wait for content to download.
However, there are some buzz-killing issues with the actual reading experience. Although the iPad edition is the tightest in terms of styling and smoothness, there are still issues with pages freezing, jumping about and being very difficult to navigate across all platforms, and these are only amplified on other devices. The picture galleries don’t appear to work , which is a real shame as it prevents various cartoons and artists’ work being viewed. Although the videos play, there’s no way of making the sound work (and yes I have checked the app and device sound settings, before you ask!).
Despite all its navigational faults, The Long + Short is on to a winner in terms of content. The articles for the most part are clever, well-written and thought-provoking. The most recent ‘Labs’ themed edition contained feature pieces on everything from legal (and not-so-legal) drugs to the ethics of social experiments and women in science. Anyone with an interest in new ideas, innovation and wacky takes on subjects will find it a fascinating read.
The design of the magazine is also a mixed bag. Firstly, there is the aesthetic: simple, tasteful and (when it works) slick. The photography and illustrations work very well with the text, and are used sparingly enough to make each issue lightweight and quick to open. Apart from overusing Helvetica (the contents page, for example, is overwhelming), the fonts and overall graphic design have been carefully thought through.
However, although it looks nice, the digital design is unimaginative. There is limited interactivity, and the issues play it very ‘safe’ given what is possible with digital publishing. There are occasional videos scattered throughout, but a distinctive lack of overall ‘wow’ factor; a necessity in the long-term success of a digital-only magazine.
A new publishing model
Nesta made the decision to publish in seasons, as the team had anticipated that the quarterly model needed adapting for mobile devices. Each season is released over a few weeks, with the publishing of features and shorter pieces carefully timed to give a real feel for the theme. This brings about a new series of challenges such as the most effective order to release articles and how to keep reader interest, which The Long + Short has met very well.
The editor Larry Ryan says that the seasons approach is “slightly more controlled than just throwing everything out there”. This is an fascinating concept for both traditional and digital-only publishers to consider, and one that has few disadvantages, unless you fail to retain reader engagement.
The results of Nesta’s decision to leave out a commenting platform on the magazine itself will be interesting to watch. Their reasoning for this was a preference to focus on social media, as ‘people are more comfortable engaging in discussions and debates using their own social networks and personal accounts’. This is true, but you can have the best of both worlds with magazine apps; the ability to comment on articles with various social media accounts. This gives you a collection of responses at the bottom of articles without the fragmentation across different platforms. Something to consider for later, perhaps.
Back to the labs
So, in short: not a bad start in terms of the quality of content, but the digital screws really need tightening with the reading experience. We’ll be keeping a beady eye on the success of the seasonal publishing model as this has a lot of potential to be innovative in the digital space. To be a really successful digital magazine in the long term, The Long + Short needs to find its ‘wow’ factor; the unique selling point that brings its readers back for more.
The header image features The Long + Short pop-up coffee shop, which gave out free coffee in exchange for downloading the app (courtesy of Nesta)