It is easy to get the notion that the whole publishing industry is swimming against the tide.
Newspapers are fighting to keep the presses printing against the 24-hour infotainment news cycle as bookstores struggle to reinvent themselves to compete against online eBook sellers. Yet magazines are enjoying something of a digital renaissance.
It’s a little counter-intuitive.
If daily papers aren’t getting the news out fast enough to compete in the blogosphere, how can weekly and monthly periodicals stand a chance? Can they compete with customized iPad blog-news aggregators with artificial intelligence technology embedded within them to discern our tastes?
There are many elements at play. But, to parse it, a lot of us still want the in-depth and investigative reporting that the best periodicals offer to supplement our quick information fixes. We also still enjoy the glossy pages of special-interest magazines.
The industry seems to be counting on tablet technology as a lifeline. Certainly, the iPad and other content consumption-oriented slates are ideally suited to the format. While brick-and-mortar newsstand sales for magazines fell 10 percent in the first half of this year, they have been generating as much as $70,000 in revenue a day for Apple. That’s a lot of money going back to publishers too, but digital replications aren’t a panacea. The current growth isn’t sustainable. Print subscribers still make up the core readership. As the novelty of new technologies wears off, it’s safe to assume the numbers will at least plateau. To fully realize their digital potential, print magazines need to innovate. They also need to be more flexible with pricing and design and encourage, or at least enable, discovery.
It’s all in line with what the music industry has done with services like Spotify, Pandora and Slacker Radio. People haven’t changed, but our media consumption habits have. We’re used to the wired world offering an endless variety at little or even no cost if we are willing to suffer through a few ads. Some digital distributors are moving in the right direction, while others stagnate, but one thing is certain: magazine apps are proliferating. Let’s look at what’s available now and what we can hope to see soon.
Traditional magazines and lessons from iPad-only start-ups
First let’s differentiate between print magazines that put out either digital replicas (PDFs) or in some cases HTML5-based interactive editions from magazines built specifically for iPad. While they face different issues, many lessons from the latter are applicable.
The Daily was News Corp’s foray into iPad-only territory and it met with critical success and got tons of buzz when it debuted. But, despite the wealth of interactive features – including small animations, some audio or video, infographics and sound-byte journalism – it failed where it counts: at making money. Readers don’t want to pay for what they can get for free.
Where to find iPad magazines – the apps
It’s hard to miss Apple’s Newsstand. It doesn’t just come pre-installed on every iOS device, it can’t even be hidden in a folder. But, as with any category in the App Store, shopping in Newsstand isn’t pleasant. The inscrutable App Store design and lack of a dedicated magazine search function are outrageous, but it is what it is. Having said that, if you are tied to Apple’s ecosystem, be sure to come with a list. The “Big Five” publishers (Meredith, Condé Nast, Time, Hearst and News Corp), are well represented along with major international publications so you should have no trouble finding the familiar. Formatting and the degree of interactivity – here and everywhere – vary by publisher.
Apple isn’t the only player. Established third-party magazine apps exist and new ones pop up from time to time. Some Newsstand magazine editions have special iPad-only features, but for most publications there is little difference between their dedicated iPad app and the digital reproductions found elsewhere.
Amazon’s Kindle iOS app shunts users to the web for payment to circumvent Apple’s fees, but once subscribed new issues are delivered through Amazon’s cloud servers for downloading or can be viewed in an optimized-for-iPad cloud-viewer. Just be careful to read the fine print before paying; some magazines choose not to offer an iOS-friendly format. The discovery process is better in the Kindle store than the App Store, but like everything on Amazon there is also lots of clutter.
While increasingly anachronistic, there are still some stand-alone magazine apps hiding in the App Store. The only one of interest to me personally is The Atlantic, but it’s not alone. Since Newsstand has no dedicated search function, the stand-alones are as easy (or difficult) to find as anything else in the App Store. But they download like regular apps with their own icons, rather than getting housed on pretty shelves.
Zinio (currently up for sale) has an iOS app that was a digital newsstand long before Apple turned the word into a proper noun. They have thousands of titles in dozens of languages that range from true replicas that can’t be manipulated by readers at all, to a thousand fully interactive titles. Zinio is doing some really interesting things to take advantage of nascent technologies and has great ideas for monetization, which I’ll discuss soon. But even for simple browsing, their app is wonderful. Everything is divided into logical sections, there is smart keyword searching, and the app allows both in-app purchases through iTunes and direct subscriptions through the Zinio website. The interface is intuitive, convenient, appealing and doesn’t try to evoke nostalgia with its icon, which may be a good thing in an industry that’s trying to reinvent itself.
I wrote about Next Issue’s launch last month. They are the latest big player with only Big Five best-sellers. They started with 30 major publications and just added 31 more keeping their promise to expand quickly. What’s different here is the subscription model. Rather than shopping for magazines a la carte, you subscribe to the service, much like with you do with Netflix. For $10 or $15 a month you get unlimited access to all monthly or all monthly and weekly titles on-demand including back issues. But they don’t offer anything for free beyond a trial membership.
Pervasive problems in current models
That brings us neatly to the problems that plague magazine apps across the board.
Back when the Internet was new and booming, most magazines had to make content available for free to stay relevant. It wasn’t very long ago that even the New York Times could be read on a PC without cost. And the pressure to keep free blog content coming is even greater today with so many people getting their news either from “smart” magazine-style iPad news aggregators like Flipboard, Zite and News360 or via social sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr and Pinterest. If traditional publishers don’t produce images and links for these markets they will be shut out. But even my small and struggling local newspaper just erected a pay wall last week and that’s the trend for magazines too. Publishers think they need to hold back more if they want to give people a reason to subscribe, yet still want to provide enough free content to keep our various feeds full. This is a tightrope act even for the best and compromises quality. And, once people have had free access they resent having to pay for anything.
The pay wall issue also gets sticky when it comes to sharing. While we may poke fun at acquaintances that post everything they read to social networks, there is still no better way to cause a stir on Facebook than to link to a controversial article and make a controversial statement about it. What we share in our social graph isn’t just what interests us; it helps us shape our online personas. Whether it’s for branding, bragging, or bullying, with personal photos, news stories, or memes, millions of us can’t get enough of sharing. Magazines, by keeping key content locked, limit or entirely cut off that increasingly important social component.
Readability, layout and standardization
Zinio explains why some of its magazines act like static photocopies without even so much as pinch-to-zoom, while others avail themselves of all the bells and whistles citing reader demographics. In an interview with Goodreader, Chief Marketing Officer Jeanniey Mullen says:
There are about five demographics of magazine readers. The oldest demographic of magazine subscribers really want the magazine the way they remember it, all the way down to millennials who’ve never seen a magazine other than what they’re seeing on a tablet with the features. We’ve had to work very carefully with publishers to strategize on what kind of features are best for their target audience.
I don’t buy it. My mom has been a grandmother for almost a decade and has no trouble with simple iPad gestures and touch menus despite a general discomfort with gadgets. For me, at 42 and very “techy”, my eyes definitely appreciate scalable fonts. If all magazines worked the same way, mimicking existing Apple features and adopting one standardized navigation model over a random mix of swipes, scrolls and taps, anyone capable of using a tablet should be fine.
I suspect a more serious issue is shifting magazines (and their art departments’) mind-sets in a discomfiting way. Layout, consistency within the covers, and formatting is all very precise in this industry. Every detail from typesetting to ad placement is given consideration to create a magazine’s aesthetic. It works in print. Some high-end holdouts that cherish design, like Monocle, opt not to digitize at all and I respect that. But holding tightly to visual choices for paper when designing an app limits everything else. Sometimes the finest (and most successful) iPad magazines are the least appealing by print standards, but they have the best iOS integration. Providing some of the world’s finest journalism, The Economist also has a wonderful iPad app. It’s not particularly pretty, and it isn’t hyper digital. It’s just practical. The editors forgo control over pagination and photo placement in favor of allowing users to adjust font size in the same manner as they can in iBooks. They include a podcast that syncs the text to superlative human readings. The share function works everywhere. And, without the podcast, issues are lightweight and download quickly.
Which brings up a big issue, especially with Apple’s Newsstand model - storage. The meta-app itself takes space. Each magazine’s app uses memory. Then, individual issues can run as large as 500MB when they are ad (Vogue) or feature (WIRED) dense. They take forever to download too. These apps have to trim the fat and it shouldn’t be at the expense of video or good images, which leaves design. There doesn’t have to be a compromise per se, just a different tack. The new iPhone iteration of The New Yorker, made with Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite, is gorgeous, easy to read, everything can be shared, and the first issue weighed in at only 27MB compared to 183MB for its iPad counterpart. But the format is different, intended for the small screen.
Pricing, monetization and discovery – solutions?
All these issues focus on the improving user experience, but there has to be room for profit or no one will be able to pay world-class journalists and photographers a living wage. I came across some posts by Hamish McKenzie for PandoDaily which made a sense to me and which are echoed elsewhere. He advocates “unbundling” content. By that he means making articles, rather than whole magazines available individually, and extending the on-demand subscription model to include various consumption plans that give readers access to the specific parts of magazines they find interesting. This notion has merit, although it risks further idea-lock already so pervasive in Internet culture. He’s right; one or two interesting teasers lure most of us in. Very few people read print magazines cover to cover (although Zinio has stats that suggest tablet readers are actually more likely to do so.) There are definitely entire sections of my regular reads that I skip, and there are authors I like who publish in magazines I don’t want to pay for so I get it. But, will publishers bite? I see the benefit to readers and even to authors, but there is a reason they tease the best stories on the cover and that’s because a lot of the magazine is filler - often high-quality well-written filler, but lacking that viral x-factor. This model could lead to killing off whole sections of magazines that we benefit from reading. But it wouldn’t pay a premium for things like letters to the editor, back pages, or a divergent op-ed pieces and risks breeding a noisy celebrity-writer’s climate that doesn’t make room for soft or new voices.
New premium model
I wonder if instead of keeping some content completely exclusive one solution might be providing a different kind of paid experience. Something along the lines of early, rather than selective access, coupled with premium perks. Magazines already suffer time delays. What if they sold advance reading rights and maybe some VIP access like extra backstory coverage, more video or even exclusive interaction with the editors and writers, the chance to help choose topics, vote on cover spreads or photo shoots, early access to new products or services – you get the idea. After the advance paid peek, all the articles that are in the print edition become available online and in-app.
Publishers keep bread-and-butter print subscribers, get digital-only subscribers through the allure of exclusivity and perks, can monetize with static glossy ads in the downloadable versions and still reap revenue from the usual website ads when we opt to read online. The content is all shareable, linkable and most of all available for free.
From there the move to discovery is easy, since providing current samples that appeal to individual readers becomes feasible. Zinio already has something like it its Explore section right now. Users can’t pick and choose, but are offered a sizeable selection of feature articles to read for free exactly as they appear in the full digital copy. This exposes us to new outlets and if the samples are good, we may very well pay for the issue. The magazines’ glossy covers (and print ads) come with, so the traditional enticements reach casual browsers the same way they do in three dimensions.
Added value for advertisers and consumers
There are other things Zinio gets right. The recently added loyalty rewards in the form of a refer-a-friend program and introduced interactive purchasing by pairing with ShopAdvisor. This partnership enables us to follow products we read about or see ads for and purchase them when they hit stores. It’s a logical way to monetize free content, which provides tangible, tractable value for advertisers and consumers.
If one service combined Next Issue’s subscription model with Zinio’s other innovations and the industry relaxed its natural but knee-jerk reaction to relinquishing control over design, it might not just of save the industry, but infuse it with new life.
Free app alternatives
Until that dream-app comes, if you aren’t convinced you want to subscribe to anything, examples of great magazine writing can be found free in iOS apps like Longform, Readablity, Instapaper and of course Zinio’s Explore section. But keep in mind - if we want the magazine industry to successfully invest fully in digital, at some point we have to be willing to support them not just with tweets and “likes” but also with our wallets.