Peter Kafka

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Steinbrenner's Death Gives Sports Illustrated a Chance to Flex an iPad Muscle

So far, most magazine publishers have tried hard to make their iPad editions a faithful translation of their paper-and-ink copies: What you pay for at the newsstand is the same thing you get from Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes store, with some added bells and whistles.

But they don’t have to be that way. Case in point: The newest edition of Sports Illustrated. Print readers get a cover featuring LeBron James and his new teammates. But anyone who buys the iPad version will see a cover story on Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who died this week.

News of Steinbrenner’s death broke early Tuesday morning, a half-day after Sports Illustrated’s conventional issue had gone to the printers. After a relatively quick conversation, says editor Terry McDonell, the magazine staff decided to give the iPad edition a new cover, along with a story by Tom Verducci.

“We all sort of looked at other, and said, ‘you know, this is an opportunity to do this,’ and why wouldn’t we?” McDonell says.

IPad owners will still get the LeBron story, and can even toggle back and forth between the two covers if they want. For the time being, the only place to get Verducci’s story is on the iPad, but McDonell says the magazine will put it up on its free site later this week, so that print buyers and subscribers won’t be disadvantaged.

If the update seems like a non-decision–flexibility being one of the chief advantages of a digital edition, after all–know that Time Warner’s (TWX) magazine doesn’t plan on making a habit out of it. If you want up-to-date sports news, SI doesn’t expect you to rely on the iPad, though it does provide a stream of stories within the app itself.

But for certain really big stories, it will try this out again, McDonell says.

“We thought, this is a chance for us to show off what we can do, and what is special abut the iPad in certain situations.”

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald