The Herald is still waiting for digital deliverance

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Having devoted a considerable number of pixels recently to writing about digital versions of the Boston Globe (here and here), I figured it was time to check in on the city’s second daily, the Boston Herald.

The good news, which you probably already know, is that the Herald has a vibrant, fast-loading free website that’s clearly differentiated from the print edition. But is there some way of paying for electronic delivery of the full Herald, as there is with the Globe through GlobeReader?

The short answer is yes, but no. The Herald does have an “Electronic Edition” (also known as the “Smart Edition”) that costs $11 every four weeks for seven-day access — $10 if you renew automatically. That’s not a bad deal, as it would cost a bit more than $17 every four weeks for print delivery, not counting tip. But though it would be overly harsh to call the Electronic Edition unusable, it’s certainly not good enough to entice me away from the Herald’s website.

Simply put, the e-edition is a full PDF of the paper with a few add-ons. You can make a page larger and try to read it that way. You can click on a story, and the software will attempt to render a text version — not bad when it works, but it doesn’t always capture the full story. If you diligently page through the entire digital paper, you’re likely to run across a few items that you’d miss if you just scanned the website. But it’s not a satisfying experience.

You can also click to have a story read to you out loud. It’s good for a laugh, but that’s all.

The Electronic Edition offers several other options as well. You can read the paper on your mobile device or an e-reader, save it for offline reading using a program called PressReader, or add an RSS feed to your aggregator. But without going into excruciating detail, let me just say that I’ve given all of those options a try (I’m still attempting to get the paper to download to the BlackBerry version of PressReader) and found that they still fell short of simply reading the Herald on the Web — or in print.

The problem is that reading online is simply a different experience from reading in print. The Herald website respects that difference; the Electronic Edition is the complete opposite, as it represents a kludgy attempt to shoehorn the print edition onto your computer screen. (I do not know whether the e-edition is different from the Herald’s NewsStand edition, another PDF delivery service. It does look like NewsStand costs a bit more.)

When the Globe announced last week that it would move some of its online content behind a pay wall next year, Herald publisher Pat Purcell acknowledged that he’s considering his options as well. I hope one of those options will be to drop the electronic edition and embrace a first-rate digital-delivery system similar to GlobeReader.

The resurrection will be (slightly) delayed

The idea that Apple’s iPad would save newspapers and magazines, always dubious, is so far not even getting a decent tryout. Evangelists for the iPad put forth a vision of users switching from free websites to paid apps.

Since a very good Web browser is built in to the iPad, it was never clear why any more than a handful would pay. And, so far, there are few apps. Among the better-known is the New York Times’ “Editor’s Choice,” a free, experimental app that doesn’t include the full content of the paper. (The Globe is reportedly working on an iPad app, but I have no details.)

PressReader offers some 1,500 papers around the world (neither the Times nor the Boston Globe is available, though the Boston Herald is). But it’s based on a PDF-like representation of the actual pages in the paper, which is no way to read online.

Meanwhile, because Apple has been slow in implementing subscriptions, we have absurdities like Time magazine’s paid app, which costs approximately 650 percent more than a print subscription.

If I had an iPad, here’s what I would want: a simple way to subscribe to the papers I read every day at a much-lower-than-print price. Since I wouldn’t pay $30 a month for an always-on 3G connection, I’d want to download the entire paper via WiFi, and then be able to read it whether I was in a hot spot or not.

It’s not as though what I’m looking for is particularly exotic. In fact, two very good alternatives already exist — yet neither one of them will work with the iPad.

First, the Times and the Globe are both available in low-cost “Reader” editions, built on top of the Adobe Air platform. The Reader, based on flipping pages, is seemingly made for the iPad. But because of Apple’s ongoing battle with Adobe, you can’t run Air on an iPad. (The forthcoming Google tablet, running Air, would be a great way to access Reader content.)

Second, many papers are available on the Amazon Kindle. But though Kindle software runs on a variety of devices, including the iPad, Amazon has restricted newspapers and magazines to its proprietary Kindle devices. If you’re running Kindle software on your laptop or smartphone, you can only use it to download and read books.

So far, it seems, the iPad has been very good for Apple, but not so good for newspaper and magazine publishers. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is that there are no good options even for people who are willing to pay.

Photo (cc) by Steve Garfield and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.