t:mesheets magazine, issue 1, homepage.

For years it seems there’s been a consensus that print is better for slow journalism, while online is the place for quick reactions and divisive op-eds. One of the reasons so many people turn to independent print magazines is to enjoy quieter, less crowded spaces that encourage focus and thoughtfulness. Of course there are plenty of very popular online platforms that produce heavyweight long-form, context-driven articles, but the print magazine community regularly argues that it’s harder to settle into an article when you have competing content, tabs, and messages vying for your attention. We’ve seen various proposed solutions in response to digital overload: new literary web magazine The Disconnect, for instance, can only be read when your WiFi is switched off.

Now, a number of online publishing projects are emerging that challenge print as the king of long-form. These “digital magazines” borrow from print design—they don’t mimic it—marrying the sense of gentler pacing associated with print with all the dynamic possibilities of digital media.

The latest digital magazine to combine the best of both print and digital is t:mesheets (pronounced “timesheets”), published by time tracking platform Toggl as an attempt to invest “in something more original and different from the usual SAAS [software as a service] content”, as editor Andrea Kelemen explains. Issue 1 features six long-form interviews with Berlin-based creatives, including (perhaps predictably) Erik Spiekermann, but also multidisciplinary creative collective 6th Finger Studio and the DJ and producer Ziúr. It’s fresh and lively in design, with ironic drop shadow, a cacophony of expressive typefaces, a lot of intuitive scrolling, and playfully animated widgets.

“It’s really just a magazine in the sense that there is no CMS or backend behind it,” says Kelemen. “We intended to keep it that way so that we may have the freedom to play around with the design with each issue. We also wanted to avoid creating a new blog.”

The team behind the platform’s look, Berlin’s Studio 24/24, cite print magazines Girls Like Us, Novembre Magazine, and MacGuffin as informing the design. But the digital magazine doesn’t directly mimic the form of these influences—unlike many online “versions” of print, which resort to flickable pages and paper-turning sound effects. t:mesheets splits its pages straight down the middle, referring to a two-page spread and using the left side for images and the right for text; but it does so to aid the reading experience, charging each “spread” with digital effects. Users scroll to read (instead of “turning” a page), and images, videos, and sounds drift past depending on where you are in each feature. Scroll horizontally, and you shift to a different interview; typefaces giddily bubble across the screen. 

The way such elements vary and transform is reminiscent of the fluid, energetic, pop-up-loaded nature of online media. Yet the visually arresting design still engages readers in a simple, compelling long-form reading experience.

t:mesheets, issue 1.

t:mesheets’ scrolling, multiple column format is something Studio 24/24 admires in Ruben Pater’s political design blog, untold stories. It also finds precedent in a number of experimental digital magazines, which began springing up after the perceived failure of iPad versions of magazines—that experiment in publishing led by Wired that never really garnered sustainable interest or readership, but for a while, was deemed the magazine industry’s saving grace.

Long since the optimism around iPad magazines waned, the “Digital vs. Print” debate still raged on. Those who create print will say that they want to make something beautiful: they’ll talk about print’s smell; its defiant physicality—often with a reverence that teeters on the nostalgic. Sophie Lovell, the previous editor-in-chief of a celebrated yet short-lived digital architecture magazine called uncube, spoke about the fetishism of print with refreshing scepticism a few years ago at the Modern Magazine conference of 2015. “It’s an old mindset—making beautiful things to buy and consume,” she said. “Making a beautiful object shouldn’t be our primary concern today. We’ve got a lot of stuff, why do we need more?”

uncube homepage.

Founded in 2012 in Berlin, uncube’s brilliance was that it didn’t attempt to preciously recreate the print experience online, but rather crafted its multimedia content in a holistic and immersive way. It certainly borrowed from print—using an issue-based structure, the navigational system of a contents page, and the concept of individual pages—but then layered video, animation, graphics, and text together to create a fluid, engaging patchwork. “Like print but without the paper” the team would often say.

Amidst a flurry of attention-grabbing distractions, uncube managed to carve out a space online that felt almost like a portal: you’d dwell, read, and watch there, glued to the site as if playing an intellectually stimulating video game. The compelling design, created in close collaboration with the editorial staff, invited the user to browse slowly. It had a lot in common with long-read platforms, but then each page was thoughtfully composed to vividly reflect the content and chime with the space it occupied.

POSTmatter, the New Mythologies issue.

In 2010, online art magazine POSTmatter from London also took a print-informed yet expansive and experimental approach to digital publishing. It began as an independently published series of iPad editions, so readers were able to engage with module content with their fingers. Soon POSTmatter moved onto web browsers so that it was no longer device-bound and “held hostage by a single manufacturer.” There, it collaborated with Daata Editions to design interactive artworks, and embedded sleek video content into its long-form interviews. After a few years, the magazine ended up shifting from uploading content every other day to settling on an issue-based approach. Each of these issues had a landing page, and then readers would click through to pieces, either scrolling to read vertically or engaging with other forms of media horizontally. The site’s mix of text, sound, and images was notably dynamic—informed by the open possibilities of digital space, and breaking from the arguably restrictive borders of a printed page.

Both uncube and POSTmatter have unfortunately come to an end. What they borrowed from print was an invitation to slow down; to reflect and concentrate on stories within a digital realm more usually characterized by snap responses. They were able to embrace the immersive qualities of the printed form while actively reflecting how we engage with contemporary media. t:mesheets is only one issue old, but it now too sets itself up with the same ambition.

Print, of course, is still arguably one of the most efficient and accessible options for young publishers looking to create slow, deliberate reading environments, as opposed to an ambitious digital magazine of uncube or POSTmatter’s scale. Both websites were, crucially, built from existing support: uncube was published by BauNetz, a German online magazine dedicated to architecture, and POSTmatter by Merimedia, a creative communications agency. t:imesheets, of course, is backed by Toggl.

Despite their varying longevity (or brevity), all three are intriguing experiments—or even case studies—that challenge the notion that online magazines are forever at the mercy of short attention spans and dwindling Time on Page. Readers aren’t just slaves to format, turning only to paper for thoughtfulness and context: it’s up to the publishers–on or offline–to determine what we read, and how long we read it for.