In general, I'd rather curl up with an old school book or newspaper than read long texts on a computer or other gadget. But I'm not a luddite; I know that technology has to be the savior of my beloved newspaper, and to a lesser extent books.

So--even though I still don't really understand the iPad--I read Gizmodo's review of Popular Mechanics' iPad edition with real interest.

Gizmodo was less than impressed with Wired's attempt, basically noting that it just looked like a printed magazine on a screen with some extra special effects. I had a hard time figuring out what exactly one would expect to see in an iPad magazine that brought something totally new to the table.

But when I read these lines in the Popular Mechanics review, I  began to understand.

Second, and key to keeping the app feeling alive and relevant, it pulls in new info, so the app doesn't become a fossil once you're done with the issue. The mini-app-within-an-app—a living infographic, if you will—that they demoed for me charted seismological data in the US, not only historically, but also using the most recent 7 days of earthquake data from the USGS. Which is really savvy—the mag retains value after you're done reading the issue.

The iPad version, which Gizmodo is quick to note is still "incrementally reformatting the magazine, instead of reinventing it" does acknowledge the strange thing about print publications: they are out of date before they hit the stands. Electronic versions of magazines never have to be out of date.

Stating it like that seems overly obvious and incredible old news. News online is always more up-to-date than news in print. That's part of the problem, and people have been talking about that for years. But magazines have a particularly hard time of it because they go to print so early.

It was particularly obvious in the wake of the  September 11 attacks, when newspapers and magazines apologized for having to distribute content written for a September 10 kind of reality. (Below are the Sept. 17 and Sept 24 issues of the New Yorker as an illustration of that lag).

(click to read full post)

More recently, I noticed it in National Geographic, which presumably closes its issues very very early because they are rarely linked to the events of the day. Still, it was strange to read a photo essay about the White House in the January 2009 issue  which referred only to the "next president" presumably because the text was locked in before the results of the 2008 election were known (though that seems like an incredible long lag).

Going back to Gizmodo, the lag is even more noticeable when it's not an issue of a cover or a caption; the actual data can change rendering the premise of a whole article faulty, or in the very least rendering a wonderfully conceived graphic obsolete before anyone sees it.

 The Popular Mechanics iPad edition hints at a strange new world in which every time a reader revisits an article, it reflects the most up-to-date information, not only through updates at the top but through fully integrated, constantly changing information.

How that would be sustainable from a staffing perspective, what that means for reinventing journalism ethics, and what that means for publications being records of history are beyond me. I don't think we're enough in that world to grapple with those questions. But they are questions that aren't that futuristic anymore.

There's a line in the musical Newsies where the striking newsboys sing joyfully "that the things we do today will be tomorrow's news." Hearing that line today is a quick reminder of how much news has changed. Today someone saying "the things we do today will be tomorrow's news" would be no cause for celebration; it's basically the same as saying "yesterday's news." If it's not news right away, it will be obsolete before anyone reads it. Electronic editions  might be figuring out what a subscription to a newspaper or magazine would mean to someone making today's news today.

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Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

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Books pyramid image originally from the British website, Explore Writing.