Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your Magazine—Anytime, Anyplace

March-April 2014

Reading is more prevalent than ever—but readers have begun exploring realms beyond the printed page. Aiming to meet Harvard Magazine readers where and when you read, we have developed an app for reading on smartphones and tablets that provides content the way you want, whether on the go or at home, in response to your suggestions. And for the first time, we can offer a print-like reading experience to international alumni—a significant advance in fulfilling the magazine’s mission to connect readers with fellow alumni while providing thoughtful news coverage about the faculty’s research and teaching, and about the University itself.

“Since the middle of the 1990s, we have become an online daily news organization through our website,, with the same context and thoroughness that we try to bring readers in the print publication,” says editor John Rosenberg. “The online and print publication inform each other, and the evolution in the information and the services we provide made it seem inevitable and inviting to provide our content to readers in the mobile form, now that the technology has evolved.”

A survey conducted in 2012 showed that three-quarters of Harvard Magazine readers owned a smartphone or tablet. Most said they regularly read publications on mobile devices. “We felt this was the perfect opportunity for us to create an optimized reading experience across all mobile devices,” says Harvard Magazine publisher Irina Kuksin. “When we first started this project, the best path forward was not clear, but we knew that reading patterns were shifting to mobile devices and we wanted to be able to reach our readers where they are, on their own terms.”

A team of staff members formed to address this challenge settled on a web-based application (web app) that would combine the best aspects of the magazine’s print version with its ever-changing website content. The goal was to create an immersive reading experience, complete with high-quality typography and single-page layouts quite unlike that commonly seen on websites. Eventually, partnering with BEAM, a Boston-based interactive marketing and “online experience” design agency, the magazine team devised in the course of two years a web app with benefits not available either in digital editions (see “Does Harvard Magazine offer a digital edition?” to learn how to access the digital editions) or on the website. Specifically, the app:

  • allows you to download an entire issue of Harvard Magazine to read later, even if there is no active Internet connection where you take your mobile device;
  • lets you save your favorite articles for convenient access and offline reading;
  • includes layouts with adjustable type sizes designed to make reading easier on smaller screens.
  • has full-screen, high-quality photo galleries and multimedia, such as audio and video;
  • introduces “My Magazine,” a new way to personalize your digital magazine with the topics that interest you most. (“My Magazine” is updated every time you open the app, so you’ll never miss Harvard Magazine stories in your areas of interest.)
  • includes easy-to-use sharing tools for e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

“I think we in fact have a product now that is wonderful and as good as anything out there, but we didn’t want to rush into it a couple of years earlier, before the technology was there,” Rosenberg says. “The solution that we came up with is not something that we bought off the shelf or outsourced. We deployed a great deal of our best talent in editorial expertise and design expertise and in our own technology expertise to create something that is of a piece with our print and website services for readers.”

According to Rosenberg, the app will allow the magazine to “deliver more and better content in a more efficient and appealing way. We can enhance the utility of class notes, for example, through filtering functions,” and steer readers to what they find most pertinent. “Looking to the future, I think we would be encouraged to do more in video and multimedia presentation using the capabilities of the app for tablet and smartphone use.”

Harvard Magazine’s production and new media manager, Mark Felton, who spearheaded the technical implementation of the project, says the magazine’s team recognized that “there's a lot of hopping around [by viewers] on the Web, and magazines buck that trend a bit. We’re rewarding readers who want to take the time to read a good article all the way through.”

The History

How, exactly, did all this happen?

Starting in 2011, six Harvard Magazine staffers began collecting data and evaluating the feasibility of creating an app that would be offered through online app stores. The group reviewed a variety of content-delivery systems—including app newsstands and the news aggregators Flipboard and Pulse—focusing on the benefits to readers of each approach. Because the project was launched in the midst of the economic downturn—not to mention seismic shifts in the print publication industry—various revenue models were considered. Ultimately, the publisher determined that supporting the app through advertising alone would not be possible.

Producing a classic or “native” app—a self contained, platform-specific, single-purpose program like most of those in the Apple App store—was discussed, but the magazine had neither the financial nor the staff resources to undertake what would amount to a parallel publication process for each new issue. Fortunately, advances in web-based programming languages and pioneering work by The Financial Times and a few other organizations had demonstrated the possibility of delivering content to mobile devices in a way that mimicked the user-friendly behavior of a traditional app, allowing readers to access the most up-to-the-minute content published on Harvard Magazine’s website in a print-like experience. And the technology allows the magazine to publish content using existing databases, a welcome saving of time and resources.

“I think this discovery phase really helped us,” Felton says. “So many of the early apps we tried were, frankly, frustrating to use. Meanwhile, the apps we enjoyed the most were more interactive.”

The team therefore decided to model the web app partly on The Financial Times’s cutting-edge implementation, and Rosenberg and Kuksin agreed to move forward with development. The group chose the articles that would appear in the app, designed layouts and app features, and then sought a development partner.

Dave Batista, partner and chief creative officer at BEAM, which carried out the software design and development work, says the Harvard Magazine app offered his firm a great opportunity to tackle the challenge of constructing a state-of-the-art digital publication design capable of delivering elegantly produced content to readers who would value the experience. “We were able to get access to a lot of initial design thoughts and functional specifications and then really build this app off those,” recalls BEAM’s technical director, Evan Lavidor. “We went through a number of design narrations and workshops with [Harvard Magazine] and I think arrived at a user-experience approach that made sense. Simultaneously there were a lot of discussions about the technology that would support it and how we could bring that all to life.”

Jeremy Borthwick, BEAM’s director of product design, said the intuitive ways of navigating Harvard Magazine’s web app make it easy for readers to dive in and experience its wide range of content, from breaking news to photo galleries and videos. He says the ability to read the magazine offline was one feature that especially interested the team at BEAM, who had to navigate several technology hurdles to get it to work. In the solution that BEAM engineered, “Offline reading is kind of intuitive in the background—it all happens automatically,” he explains. “We're not asking readers to manage their device settings or anything like that…. Everything is pretty seamless.”

Funding the App

In tandem with the technical challenge of creating the app loomed the critical question of how to finance its development and maintenance. A free app would facilitate adoption by readers, but Kuksin says the up-front costs of that option were too high. (Managing editor Jonathan Shaw, who oversaw the project, calculates that the effort overall represents hundreds of hours of staff time and a substantial financial investment of more than $250,000, drawn from the magazine’s reserves.) Instead, the business staff determined that combining in-app advertising with appeals for reader support of the project would make it possible to proceed. “Our sponsorship program,” Felton explains, “enables readers to try the product before they commit to supporting it.”

Now the magazine invites you to try this new platform by accessing the web app without charge for three months. After the trial period, you will be asked to sponsor the app project for $12 a year, a fee that will cover some of the costs of creating and maintaining the app.

Readers are paying for the format, not the content—they will continue to receive their print issues in the mail and be able to access the regular website for free. But given such extra costs as fees to include artwork on the new platform, and the expense of continuing software support, Rosenberg says, he and Kuksin are “trying to recover those costs so that we can continue to provide the service. We can already see that this technology lets us do more. It builds our content capabilities, it builds on the state of the art in delivery, and it is a very exciting pathway to what we will become on our readers’ behalf.

“This is an expensive undertaking,” Rosenberg continues. “It adds a lot to the service that readers can avail themselves of. It is mobile. It is convenient. It is beautiful, and even at the start it is something that readers can make personal.”

With the app now fully launched, we hope that you will try it and then choose to sponsor it. Your sponsorship will bring to a broadened audience a better way to read coverage of Harvard and the Harvard community that is thorough, comprehensive, lively, and fair. It’s a movable feast. And now you can have it to go.

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