Magazine publishers expect iPad to turn the page on free digital content

by Brad Spirrison

The cover story for magazine publishers leading up to this Saturday's debut of the iPad is whether or not consumers will pay to read content on Apple's tablet computer. They have good reason to be optimistic. 

recent study from audience measurement firm comScore suggests that more than 50 percent of iPhone and iPod touch owners are "willing or very willing" to pay for subscriptions on E-Readers like the iPad and Kindle. They will have many opportunities to do so in the days and weeks ahead. 

One of the thousands of titles preparing for distribution on the iPad is The Sporting News. The 125-year-old publication is pushing forward in the 21st century with free iPhone apps for Pro Football and NASCAR. This Thursday, the company will begin charging $2.99 monthly subscriptions for its iPad-ready "Sporting News Today" electronic magazine. Sporting News president and publisher Jeff Price is confident readers will pony up for his company's premium content on the new device. 

"The packaging of sports stories with an interactive touch screen lets fans go as deep as they want," said Price, who joined The Sporting News earlier this year after serving as head of Sports Illustrated's digital operations. "The editorial engine we have lends itself perfectly to tablet devices." 

Part of a digital newsstand

Although Price expects to have a standalone iPad application later in the year, in the near-term the Sporting News will be found among approximately 2,300 titles distributed to the device by Zinio. Earlier this year, Zinio unveiled its Magazine & Book Reader iPhone app. More than 200 magazines, including EsquireCosmopolitan, and iPhone Life Magazine already use Zinio technology to reach paid subscribers on their iPhones. The company's iPad offering will be wider in scope.

"It's definitely not just an iPhone app," said Zinio chief marketing officer Jeanniey Mullen, adding that the company has worked through a lot of technological barriers including optimizing its application for the iPad's "non-flash environment." 

Annual subscriptions for most publications available on Zinio's newsstand mostly range between $5 and $20. The company gets paid "every time somebody buys an issue," Mullen said. Additionally, Zinio will split revenue it generates from its publisher's ad network. Macy's, Kraft and Dodge are among the advertisers already involved. 

Price is bullish on his publication's longer-term advertising prospects, and will focus on up-selling advertisers of the print editions to the iPad. 

"We have this great canvass that has always been magazine advertising," he said. "Now you can add immersive advertising that is extremently compelling, measurable and quantifiable." 

For Hearst's LMK, iPad strategy still TBD

Over the past few weeks, Hearst Corporation has released approximately 70 iPhone apps under its LMK.com brand. These "Let Me Know" applications start at 99 cents, and focus on niche topics that range from cupcakes, to Coldplay, to the Chicago Cubs

LMK general manager Michael Gutkowski said the division is going to wait until after the iPad is released before configuring any applications (which mostly curate and aggregate third-party content) specific to that device. 

Regardless of the mobile medium, Gutkowksi did say LMK apps will always come with a price-tag. 

"People are used to paying for information on phones and mobile devices through apps," he said. "We think the in-app purchasing functionality that Apple provides and supports will give us the opportunity to try different business models."