Netly: The Third Screen

Will digital magazines have links?

Posted on: October 5, 2009

My former colleague Erick Schonfeld tweeted that question the other day.

I replied, “Links are for browsing the Web, not for lean-back reading experiences like books and mags.” Actually, I tweeted back something with more typos than that, but whatever, Erick replied:

“Right, I got that. So you would strip out all links from digital magazines, even if they are being read on a Web tablet?”

As usual, Erick got right to the heart of the problem, namely: How closed off from the Web will digital magazines on tablets be? This is a huge question because if the answer is, e-mags won’t be cut off from the Web at all, it leaves the barn door open, doesn’t it? Because if e-mags on tablets are just like Web sites, and there are links pointing you away from the product, we’re right back to the wide-open Web again. And we know that people don’t expect to pay for stuff on the Web.

But if you cut off the digital magazine from the Web, isn’t that a bit, well, Draconian? Don’t readers expect to be able to, at the very least, augment their understanding by using Wikipedia or (fill in your favorite reference site here)? And likewise, shouldn’t a digital magazine have a variety of Web services built in—news feeds from the mag’s website, say, or Twitter feeds?

There are no good answers to these questions yet, in part because there are no good examples yet of either digital magazines, or the tablets that will support them. I think many approaches will be tried once the good devices start to arrive.

I suspect though that the first digital magazines will use a less-is-more approach. This works for e-books, which don’t have links in the text, of course. Similarly, magazines are meant to be read—or at least “paged” through—cover to cover. Why would we put links or other devices that would pull the reader away from the product? I think the first-gen e-mags will assume that readers are subscribing so that they can immerse themselves in the magazine itself. The experience is similar to how many apps on the iPhone work—if you want to look something up on Wikipedia, you must leave the app. Yes, there are some apps that allow a kind of in-app browsing, but that tends to be a fairly gnarly experience and generally serves to keep users within the app.

So in summary: Magazines don’t need links. They should be like wonderful applications, surprising and delightful and fluid to use. If you want to browse the Web, close the app.

I assume Erick is interested in this because TechCrunch is working on its own tablet, which is really just a net-tablet. Not that there’s anything wrong with that and in the end, he/TechCrunch might be right—i.e. “It’s the Web, stupid.” But I hope not.

5 Responses to "Will digital magazines have links?"


We produce hundreds of digital magazines that are read by more than 1.5 million readers every month. (Watch them reading live at )

Since the beginning of our company in 2003, live links have been an integral part of the product.

While I agree with the “lean back” premise, it doesn’t seem to hold up in reality. Click-through rates for digital mags. tend to be dramatically higher than websites. I think this is because the readers are simply more engaged.


Marcus Grimm
Marketing Director
Nxtbook Media

That’s a smart answer to a diiufcflt question.

hi, josh & marcus:

interesting viewpoints and, clearly, from 2 different perspectives.

when i first read about this post (via techcrunch), i certainly thought there was some value to a magazine with ‘localized’ links. my thinking was there should probably be active links to reference resources, a link to a local version of wikipedia perhaps, since we now have that device (sans pics). and i agreed that rss and/or twitter feeds could be a significant and unnecessary distraction.

thinking more about how i read, though:
1) with fiction–Good fiction–most of what i need to know is given to me. the author may even have to define unique terms in the text but, rarely, is it contingent upon me to seek out an external resource to keep pace with the story.
2) with non-fiction, many are–by definition–self-contained references. and, again, with a good one, i generally don’t find myself having to grab another reference/website/etc to comprehend the material.

reading what marcus had to say…
there seems to be a good strategy for monetizing the experience.
and i hadn’t considered that…
attractive pricing for the content will probably drive adoption. and i do think many companies are considering strategies to leverage these new technologies as ad platforms.

i still wonder if there isn’t a way to localize an ad experience, without fully transitioning to the web. a rich ad, ‘comment card’, ‘request for more info’, etc, that’s presented inline (maybe an advertiser link can reserve/open 1/4 to 1/2 page for an ad), with content resident in the magazine, and then be quickly/easily closed. any info collected could be instantly transmitted to the advertiser, and maybe there would be some integration with a full computer–a client, even an instant messaging bot that would ‘collect’ the actual URLS for viewing later on netbook/laptop/desktop/etc.

i accept that reading a periodical, and even some books nowadays, i have to contend with ads, blow-in cards, etc…
i can/do.
so there’s probably some room there to get some revenue, bring the cost of content down, and spur adoption.

however, my main agreements are with josh:
the reading experience should be primarily focused on being seamless/immersive/self-contained.

great points to ponder…

[…] My erstwhile confederate Erick Schonfeld over at TechCrunch, takes me to task for arguing that digital magazines will not behave like websites—that is, they will not have links: If the […]

I don’t understand why so much bandwith is being used to explore how magazines can survive in the digital age. Why not let them die gracefully? Everything they do can be done better on a web page more economically, with few trees killed.

I grew up on ‘Sport’, ‘Popular Science’, ‘Mad’, and a host of other magazines. They were great. I haven’t subscribed to one in years. I was an editor, managing editor, and finally a publisher, of magazines. It was fun. They were useful. Now I’m a webmaster. What’s the big deal? The time of magazines has passed. Someone said “as we enter the era of the third screen…..” We? I hope you mean magazine apologists, not regular people, who have been in that era quite awhile.

You want layout? I’m looking at a 30″ monitor. There are lots of beautifully-designed web pages that look great on it. You want a “lean back” experience? Get a book. Magazines don’t give you that experience, which is why they’re in dentists’ offices. Even my favorite mags seldom had more than 2 or 3 articles per issue that I had much interest in. The rest was wasted on me, and most of it was ads. Let it go.

Pardon the cliche, but this sounds like buggy whip makers talking about how they could re-design their product to pull-start engines. If writers want to write, let them invent a new medium. Business types should invest elsewhere. There may always be tiny niche markets, and that’s fine, but basically the institution has run its course, and that’s ok. Get over it.

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