Like many magazines, Highlights has seen its circulation decline over the years, although it still boasts a circulation of more than 2 million. But it didn't want to rush headlong into the mobile world.
“As the technology around tablets and mobile devices took off, we didn’t rush to be the first there,” Johnson said. “We wanted to marinate a little bit on the capabilities and think about what would be right.”
Because the magazine’s puzzles have always been a major draw for its readers — kids and adults alike — the company wanted to be sure to capture the same sense of play and fun in the new medium. Puzzles are interactive, and so are articles — kids can choose to read the pieces themselves or have the app read to them aloud. Small layout touches throughout the app are meant to enhance the experience. For example, the five pieces of daily content are delivered in a digital wrapped package that must be opened, in an effort to re-create what Johnson called the “mailbox moment” — the feeling of excitement that kids have had for years when checking the mail for their next issue.
The app is the product of a partnership between Highlights and Fingerprint Games, a California start-up that has also worked with Mattel, National Geographic, PBS Kids and other children’s media outlets to develop apps.
Nancy MacIntyre, the chief executive of Fingerprint, said the collaboration began after a chance ride on public transit brought her into a conversation with a man who turned out to be a licensing agent for Highlights. Once things started rolling, Fingerprint and Highlights worked together to try to capture the spirit of the magazine for a new audience.
“We had to figure out how to go from a flat piece of paper to an interactive experience,” she said.
Some features, such as the articles, are relatively untouched from the magazine versions — apart from layout. Other features, such as a regular advice column in which kids give advice to other kids, have been converted into a video series. And puzzles, a main draw in the magazine and in tests of the app, get a full-color, lightly animated makeover.
“If we’re honest, we know there are some kids now that aren’t going to be able to experience the same feeling of excitement through ink and paper,” said Christine French Cully, Highlights for Children’s editor in chief. But, she said, that’s an opportunity to re-imagine what its mission means in a new world.
To support the writing and producing demands of the new videos and games, Johnson said that the company is investing in staffers who can continue to turn out thoughtful pieces that appeal to today's kids.
The app is free to download and comes with a free trial period — think of it as the modern equivalent of picking it up in the dentist's waiting room. After that seven-day trial, it will cost $7.99 a month — meaning the app, which updates daily, costs slightly more than its paper counterpart.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the magazine will be going away. Johnson sees the app as a complement to the printed product, and as a way to expand the visibility of Highlights’ audience. And, he said, he hopes parents worried about how much screen time their kids get will be encouraged by the option to present their tech-obsessed kids with higher-quality stories, videos and games designed by a company that’s been trying to spark kids’ creativity for decades.
“The quality matters, what that screen time does to kids is not just measured in the clicks and the hours; it’s what happens in their brains,” he said.