iPad Magazines Go to ’11

It’s still too early for me to say “I told you so” about iPad magazines, but nevertheless I think it’s worth pointing out that the current evidence shows that this format is not doing well. The Audit Bureau of Circulations, which is sort of like the Nielsen of the print magazine industry, reported that sales of magazine apps across the board, from Wired, GQ, Vanity Fair and others, slumped precipitously towards the end of last year. More on the specifics in this article from paidContent. The bloom is off the rose, I think, and the reality that people just don’t like to consume magazine content in the monolithic, issue-centric form that these apps take has caught up with the irrational enthusiasm that we saw in 2010.


All This Help Is Hurting

A lot of people who make, read and love magazines have called me a naysayer about this issue, but I say that if you really care about the value that magazines can bring to the world (and I admit, I’m skeptical about whether they really do offer much value anymore), then it would be wise to give up the ghost on this unrealistic notion that a fancy presentation layer and rudimentary DVD extras-style bells and whistles slapped on top of content that can already be read for free on the public Web will generate any significant revenue. It’s bordering on obstinate to think that something you care so much about can be salvaged by doing more or less the same thing that has failed magazines so consistently until now: continuing to ignore the fundamentals of digital user experience design and how they diverge from analog print design.

Time to focus instead on coming up with new and genuinely different solutions to this admittedly vexing and unforgiving problem facing great print publications everywhere. So I say stop it, Condé Nast. Stop it, Hearst. Stop it Adobe. Stop it everyone who’s pursuing this all but discredited strategy. All of the money, time and effort that has gone into these misbegotten experiments amounts to a kind of neglect and misdirected focus that borders on a dereliction of duty. You’re killing the thing that you love.

Meanwhile, News Corp. is apparently readying the launch of The Daily, its much-anticipated iPad newspaper, sometime later this month, possibly in a joint announcement with Steve Jobs. I’m bearish on this particular venture too, but not knowing much about the product, I’ll withhold judgment. What’s more, there’s the added unknown of The Daily possibly being distributed via an Apple-powered newsstand, a new venue for helping consumers find and browse publications. This is badly needed and may inject a bit of life into the whole iPad magazine concept and heck, it may prove me dead wrong in all of what I’ve written here and what I wrote in my previously stated position on the subject. If anything can change the prospects for iPad magazines, an Apple newsstand can. Then again, a year ago we were saying that if anything can save magazines, an Apple tablet can.

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31 Comments

  1. Hopefully the Apple Newsstand will acknowledge the value of articles as well as magazines. The technology allows for more granularity for the consumer, so why not deliver?

    I had a bit of a rant about this last year: http://goo.gl/E4N5a

  2. If anything, the last year shows you how badly publishers do not want to go the RSS/Flipboard/news feed model where all of their content is dwindled to a text feed in an aggregation app. You and many other interface designers point to Flipboard as the future of “magazines” … It’s the future of something, but I doubt any major publisher sees a sustainable business in supplying text feeds to aggregation apps. They already know how bad web ad rates are. How much worse does it get when their content is diminished to headlines and a paragraph, and Flipboard is taking a cut for supplying the pipes?

    Who knows where tablet apps will go in the years ahead, but I have a feeling the folks at People, Martha Stewart Living, O, etc will find a happy solution to delivering clothes/food/celebrity catalogs to the people who want them.

  3. Mike you’re probably very right when you say, “I doubt any major publisher sees a sustainable business in supplying text feeds to aggregation apps. They already know how bad web ad rates are. How much worse does it get when their content is diminished to headlines and a paragraph, and Flipboard is taking a cut for supplying the pipes?”

    The only problem is that what the major publishers want comes second to what users want. And users don’t seem to want what the major publishers are doing.

  4. Khoi:
    You make an excellent point that tends to get eaten up by your seeming enthusiasm for the demise of magazines. Without a doubt things are changing and the big boys that have taken their shot so far have wasted both time and money in pursuit of a digital solution that seeks to sidestep that change. Still, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a core concept of “a magazine” that can and will thrive in a tablet context. It may not be the blockbuster revenue generator of it’s print ancestor, but done right it is still worthwhile—both as revenue stream and as a creative endeavor.

    That being said I wholeheartedly agree that most publishing companies have gotten the tablet completely wrong. Not only have they suffocated their tablet editions in hermetically sealed app-chambers, but they have greatly over-estimated how significant the iPad is to their future. That illusion needs to end today.

    Ultimately we will see some major companies take serious hits (or completely fail) as this very dangerous miscalculation plays out. Still, at the end of the day, “the magazine” will evolve. What it looks like is anybody’s guess, but for what it’s worth I tend to think the best 21st Century magazines will look a lot more like APIs and a lot less like apps.

  5. I still feel that a significant part of the problem is that publishers (Adobe included) haven’t actually created tools that are worth using to deliver content efficiently to these devices, but rather are just shoe-horning their existing process into a new format. Imagine if this is how web publishing was approached, and everyone just uploaded pdfs of their issue, rather than creating sites to contain the information.

    While a newsstand from apple would certainly help (especially if it was the only approved way of receiving automated, background-downloaded new issues), until people approach the medium correctly, rather than focusing on the quickest way to have something on the medium, we will all suffer.

  6. I agree entirely that the first (and second) wave of ‘magazines’ for ipad are flawed. But the bigger problem, especially in the USA, is that 80-0% of the readership is already paying for a print subscription. Any sensible digital pay strategy will need to involve sharing that subscription across multiple platforms. Do the publishing companies even have their subscribers in a database that can do that?

  7. As opposed to buying a magazine on paper, on iPad it is possible to actual measure how much I interact with content, if I read or skim, etc.

    Then, why not reward readers? If I actually read 5 articles in the past 2 issues, I get a significative discout for the next one, etc.

    If I share on Facebook/Twitter an article optionally append that I’ve read 34% of it, let readers brag.

    As opposed to have the magazines on sight on my coffee table, on iPad they are “lost” among other apps; I would love a push notification 1 week after (maybe delivered before weekend, or by consulting my iCal schedule to see when I’m not busy) to tell me that I read 35% of article X and I bookmarked it but I haven’t come back to finish it … finish it by next week, and get Y points.

  8. Khoi is right about this. I’d add that we need to start thinking about long-form journalism the way we do about music- the future is all singles. No one wants to buy your crappy 12-track album unless you’re the Beatles or Jay-Z. And no one wants to download your crappy 1GB magazine unless you’re the New Yorker or Wired- and probably not even then. They might be willing to download one article, though. They probably won’t pay for it, though. But still- imagine a Longreads/Instapaper supported by great ads, with access to the last 200 years of magazine journalism. That’d be something!

  9. One of the things people forget about magazines is that they are scarcely subject to content/advertising ratios (especially today). If GQ has about 30 pages of content in an issue, they are more than happy to sell 300 pages of ads against that (and they do). Furthermore, since it’s a fashion magazine, they justify their choices by saying that fashion ads are actually content, in a way. You just can’t do this on the web or on an iPad. There is a sane limit to ad ratios online.

    So when you combine a) limited ads with b) lower ad rates, that’s what you have in online publishing. There are only two ways to make that profitable: a) lower the cost of production and delivery and b) get really specific in your ability to target. Anything outside of that (e.g. iPad apps trying to dazzle with interactive features) is a waste of time and money.

  10. I agree. Instead of copying an old format onto a new delivery system, publishers should be looking at what makes magazines special and different from other forms of media. Then take that basic concept and reimagine it for this new format.

    From my limited perspective, it seems like magazines are unique in their combination of rich art and photos (compared to newspapers), great content layout, focus on a niche, and in-depth articles. I think the idea of an ‘issue’ collecting various articles together once a month is more of an outdated constraint from the print era than something that consistently provides value in and of itself.

    If you look at it that way, then I think ‘magazines’ as a content-rich source of detailed information about a narrow interest are great. I don’t know if there are any publishers willing to take that far a step back to realize it and act on it though. This may be a golden opportunity for a new wave of tiny media startups without the overhead of traditional publishers.

  11. The companies that created this format have ignored small design firms and independent designers and publishers. How can they expect growth and innovation from simply converting old titles to digital? The industry needs outsider trickle up innovative work like Emigre/Beach Culture/Ray Gun magazines was to Pagemaker. But right now, how can a small design firm/publisher design a small but innovative digital publication (or whatever you want to call it) themselves for the iPad using affordable software? There is no way.

  12. > There is a sane limit to ad ratios online.

    Why?

    For that matter, pick anything else we’re doing now, and tell me: “why.”

    Really, if almost no one is making money off content, then we aren’t at the final state. In 10 years we’ll have to have something, in 20 years it’ll be something else and in 50 years I suspect it won’t look anything like either of those solutions.

    And that’s presuming the hardware is anything like this.

    I’ve talked to a lot of different people lately, and have been surprised how short-range, status-quo many leaders of futuristic, cutting-edge products really are.

  13. As a would-be iPad magazine consumer, the only thing holding me back is price. For whatever reason, publishers can’t or won’t offer their content at a price comparable to the print editions.

    That’s it.

    Maybe I’m keeping a foot in the past, but I enjoy “the monolithic, issue-centric form” that you mention. It’s an alternative to the busy-ness of web sites that lets me just settle in and stay put for a while (though I never thought I’d be considering Wired magazine long attention span).

    Of course instapapering the content from the web for free works, but I have liked some of what I’ve seen in these magazine apps. And, while not always perfect or even terribly good, there’s plenty of room for growth and innovation in the format. I would hate to categorically write off the whole idea so soon.

  14. I liken the rush of magazines to ‘get digital’ to the rush of travel guides to be published across iPhones and iPads.

    Guide producers like Lonely Planet, Wallpaper and Eyewitness would have spent piles of big boy $$$ to transfer, or rather re-hash content to work in the finger flick and swipe environment. I love my iPhone for all of it’s hours of time management and wastage applications… but I tried a few of these in my recent year of overseas travels. Two things came out of this.

    1. In a year of world travel I did not see one single iPad being used as a guide/assistant device by a tourist… on the street, at the airport, in a hotel lobby, anywhere.

    2. I myself really tried to crossover but found it clunky and all too compartmentalised in the digital world. When you are in unfamiliar territory you just want a pocket map to draw all over, pages to dog-ear… be hands on and get it grubby.

    On the other hand, you meet enough travellers WITH iPads/iPhones/iPods and they are all love using them for photos, music, facebook and email… games, and the like. But you don’t hear people talking about magazine subscriptions or brilliant guides.

    The solution? I think it’s a mixed media approach. Work out what gives the ‘point of difference’ content in the digital world and marry it in with more old-skool. Let them compliment each other. Re-think rather than re-hash. Let it evolve slowly rather than using the bull to a gate approach.

  15. There seems to have been a rash of articles concering iPad magazines, most falling into the “I told you so” category. Many reasons are given, but the one I hear mentioned the most be the average consumer (non reporter/blogger/pundit) is the one I least see mentioned by those writing articles. Price. (on a side note, Andy nailed it 2 comments above)

    Wired, in print form, has a 1 year subscription cost, and has a free t-shirt thrown in to sweeten the deal. Digital format? $5.99 per issue. Gee, let me think, which way am I going to get Wired? Also, as has been mentioned, ads. If you want me to pay almost $6 for your product, strip the ads, please!

    Jus the 2 cents of the average consumer.

  16. I agree with Andy and Jim above. The issue of pricing is currently the biggest hurdle. While I understand all the publishers are waiting for Apple to create a subscription model in-app they could have also experimented with lower prices to begin with. While I would probably never give up my new yorker print subscription I wouldnt mind getting Wired only on the ipad. I already read Macworld, via zinio, only on my ipad. It takes me about 20-30 minutes to skim through a Macworld issue so why create more paper waste?

    Khoi, I am a bit surprised you tell Conde, Hearst, Adobe to stop. On the contrary – let them try to figure it out and come up with ideas as well as publishing solutions. I am tinkering with Adobe’s beta publishing suite myself. While it’s in beta there is an opportunity for individuals or small publishers to try it for free, if you are using indesign CS5. The tools and concepts will continue to evolve and I think it’s a great time for experimentation.

  17. Alon: When you say “let them try to figure it out and come with ideas,” I would argue that following the path that GQ, Wired, Esquire and these other magazines have followed is not experimentation at all. I’ll point you back to a comment that reader David Sleight left on one of my previous blog posts:

    “translating print magazines to iPad apps which merely treat them as ‘digital replicas’ (actual industry quote) is actually a rejection of genuine experimentation by publishers, in favor of something seemingly safe and familiar.”

    What I’m arguing is that all this time, money and effort would be better spent on much more imaginative approaches.

  18. the problem is that the iPad designs (like popular science) are horrible and very user unfriendly. They need better design. Plus they haven’t figured out how to cope with the fact a print subscription to say Vanity Fair is $20 per year, yet the iPad edition is $6 each month. Figure out how to improve those two things and you’re golden.

  19. Khoi, perhaps I was too optimistic thinking the big publishers would actually experiment and come up with something unique.. I guess I was trying to say that experimentation can take many shapes, one might be too static or not inventive enough but with enough people (plenty 2-star reviews on iTunes for most magazines) critiquing the existing fairly-static format and pricing someone might advance publications to another level.

    I bought one Wired magazine, to see how it looks & works but as a subscriber there is no reason for me to continue and pay full price for it. I bought the first issue of Project and I think it’s so awfully designed (shocking really) that there is no reason for me to buy another one. On the other hand I enjoy the simple translation of Macworld to a very static iPad magazine with the one simple benefit of not wasting paper on something I am not going to ready for more than 20 minutes, there is no need to subscribe to the printed version for something like this. As a designer and maybe in the future, content creator, I like seeing all the good & bad directions as they try to progress.

  20. The magazine I manage and design is doing just fine. We opted to go the iPad and iPhone route (with some bells and also whistles in the form of audio slideshows of related content), but made the App Store versions free. Free app, free content. Didn’t hurt us at all–in fact, we’re finding that most of our digital users are our print users who wanted to share the contents of the issues without lending out their copy.
    Print magazines, if properly targeted to a specific audience, have a place. Some are making the most of print, using different paper stocks and printing methods to further artisanize the product. A good magazine is a unique experience–pick up a copy of UK movie magazine Little White Lies, then visit their website. Both are well-designed, but there’s no comparison which is more enjoyable–the mag wins easily.
    Content is largely free and certainly plentiful on the web, but it’s soup. Ideally, a magazine contains content commissioned, laid out, and curated for specific effect. It’s finite, and more importantly it’s focus is narrow. You aren’t distracted by a pop-up, a chime indicating you’ve got mail, a chat window or anything else. I spend a lot of time on the web and I enjoy it no end, but reading anything long-form is still kind of a drag. Is it cool to click back and forth, instantly google things that I read that interest me, follow up on this or that? Sure. But it’s also fun to immerse myself in a magazine that speaks to my interests.
    Also, the batteries never get low and I can take it to the beach without fear of a few grains of sand or sea mist ruining it.

  21. There are some severe limitations when working with PDFs to create digital replicas. I am sure no one wants to zoom in and out to read text or ads. But this is what got the industry going and was needed as a first step. Now it’s a time of evolution, as the web, devices, and band width have matured. Stay tuned to hear more about HTML apps from companies like Treesaver.net. It’s time for a re-do..and to start with a great reading experience once again.

  22. Oh shit, you’re comments are not long enough for me, so I’m splitting this into two comments. Forgive me y’all, I don’t know another way.

    Khoi, you had me to here:

    A lot of people who make, read and love magazines have called me a naysayer about this issue, but I say that if you really care about the value that magazines can bring to the world (and I admit, I’m skeptical about whether they really do offer much value anymore)…

    Generally, I think you’re leading a healthy debate about this issue, but as a magazine believer/maker/staffer, I think you’re not helping by calling the entirety of the concept’s value into question. Paper magazines have had a hard time trying to figure out how to make their businesses viable again after two decades of very easy money from idiot VC groups looking for impossible and infinite growth, to advertisers too drunk to notice the hands on their pocket books until they were in chapter 11. Television magazines have devolved mostly into drivel and schlock, looking for shock factor to attempt to boost audience ratings (not unlike many paper products). But there are still a few of us out here, even if we don’t have much power, that understand the power of a “monolithic issue centric” format. It’s a format that moves millions of people to (still) buy them, even now. Even with massive unemployment and an economy in the crapper.

    Your attack of the idea of a magazine (that is, a collection of related content/ideas into an “issue”) discredits your very valid points about the complete mess these so-called “industry leader” apps are making with the folks who need to hear this most–and are seemingly the least able to understand (magazine ‘executives’–think Alec Baldwin’s hulu alien or 30 rock character and you have a generous depiction). I can count a dozen magazines on paper that still do this monolithic issue thing very successfully every single issue without even blinking to think about it, and one, perhaps two, on TV. One has also successfully lept from its original platform to the iPad. The issue isn’t who has this figured out (no one, really; at least not completely) and who doesn’t (that’s everyone). The issue at hand, the driver in this runaway train, is platform access and scalability.

    Unfortunately, no one has come up with a solution *that has the scalability* for providing much richer content than text on a scrolling screen–except Adobe. Their viewer framework is going to be available on Android and other tablets. They’ve made that perfectly clear. They’ve also hinted to us in magazines that they plan to create their own platform-agnostic newsstand. They’re telling publishers “look, all you have to do is create screen cells in the right aspect ratio for each device and viola–we make your screen app just as awesome as your paper app. Forget your developers and producers and code geeks. Just add water.”

    And until such time as there is another way, it will be like this. We need to have an honest conversation about this whole ball of wax because the suits still don’t understand how a photoshoot can cost more than $500 (“it’s twice what we pay for the stock!!” *palm>face*) or why an article’s writer thinks he/she deserves more than “exposure”. If I hear one more person tell me to reduce the cost of a covershoot from $3,500 to 2 grand by “getting rid of the lighting assistant and just setting up two hours longer” I’m going to drop a spot on someone’s skull. This shit costs moola, peeps. I know, take a deep breath, that was really a newsbreaker. I’m not saying publishers need an alternate “just add water” solution, but we need to recognize that the costs involved in creating content for delivery on this scale are massive, and for risk and ROI, the current solution provides a mediocre user experience, but a pretty darn decent ROI (free content, plus profits, equals profits). Rich content is not just about passion. It’s about skills and interest and yes, I’m going to say it–cash effing MON-AY. The tools adobe has at hand do not cost any money, and they leverage the content that has already been paid for against another delivery mechanism. Sounds like greenbacks to me, yo.

  23. Finally, the last bits:

    I may sound like I’m defending them, and I’m not. I’m using the tools now to play and understand what they’re trying to achieve. There’s room here for growth and I’m certain when they start charging money, things will heat up even more as the platform capabilities mature. But as a general framework, it’s still pretty flawed. All that said, attacking the idea of the magazine is not helping us move this conversation farther. It’s further alienating you from the folks you are proclaiming to speak to. Hearst, Condж, even Adobe to some extent. They do magazines. We need to have an honest conversation about how we can continue to pay for magazines (I believe we can–and we need to wrestle the control out of circ managers and marketing morons who think a communications degree=journalism and sales expertise) so that we can continue to make them. The execs play to the lowest common denominator. Maybe all of this will help us talk about how to play to the highest one, and rise to the occasion of a new multi-platform media landscape, rather than pander to a world of screens and/or paper. If some of us–content “creators” (what a lousy term)–that is to say, Art Directors, Writers, Designers, Photographers, Editors–can take the torch on this, maybe the middle managers who have for 20 years kept us at arms length from the top dogs will be moved out of the way.

    But everyone, please, stop this nonsense of the “death” of the magazine.

  24. From the Letters section of Outside Magazine:

    “Foreign Aid:

    I’ve purchase many Outside issues throughout my travels, but the drawback has been that those issues in Sweden, where I live, cost around $12. Earlier this year, the perfect solution presented itself: an iPad.”

    RE: An iPad/iTunes Newstand, reasonable per-issue pricing —

    Big opportunity to expand distribution to a global audience.

  25. Erik: I didn’t intend to attack the concept of the print magazine, though looking back on what I wrote I realize that can be inferred. I won’t hide the fact that I’m not a believer in the magazine format, but that’s not the core of my argument in these recent posts at all. What I’m talking about is the fallacy of the iPad magazine concept. And I would say that throwing in remarks about my dislike of print magazines in general did not help that argument. Point taken.

    Your wrote…

    “…Attacking the idea of the magazine is not helping us move this conversation farther. It’s further alienating you from the folks you are proclaiming to speak to. Hearst, Condж, even Adobe to some extent. They do magazines. We need to have an honest conversation about how we can continue to pay for magazines”

    I’ll correct you here: I don’t really care whether Hearst, Condé and Adobe heed me or not. What I’m interested in is moving the notion of digital content past the format of magazines altogether, and I think that all of the attention paid to iPad magazine apps is preventing us from doing that.

    I also don’t think an “honest conversation about how we can continue to pay for magazines” is all that necessary. It presupposes that magazine content as a whole is worthwhile, which I disagree with. Most of this content is dismissible, if you ask me, and I won’t miss it when it’s gone.

  26. So let me get this straight. You’re writing a blog post about what’s wrong with iPad magazine apps, but you don’t believe in magazines (or their apps) at all.

    Just seems like an odd thing to even bother with, frankly.

    And I’ll agree to disagree with you completely about your take on magazines as a whole and their possibilities on another delivery platform. While I think the conversation should be had–what a magazine on a tablet is, what it is not, why it works/doesn’t–I’m baffled as to why you are participating in it, since you seem to think the magazine format is objectionable to begin with.

    I find it all disappointing because I think you have raised good points that should be heard in the publishing community and won’t be, but I can understand where you’re coming from, seeing that you don’t have any faith in the idea.

  27. Hi, everyone!

    I just read this blog post and all the comments about the Future and the Apocalypse of the print/digital magazines. I have just one question. What if this post was a story in a print magazine and then translated to the tablet version of that magazine? Wouldn’t have been more interesting for all of you to post all these comments on that digital version of the magazine while holding your tablet just like you do with a printed magazine? Something like Richard Branson is trying to do with his Project magazine. What I mean is that we should try to embrace both versions and try to come up with many ideas as possible to save the future of the publishing industry instead of arguing about print versus digital.

    Oh, and just to let you know. Right now, my eyes are tired of trying to read this post on my desktop :) Wish I had my iPad with me :) And by the way, what do you think about Project?

  28. It might be interesting to reconsider the argument but take the big brand magazines out of the equation. When Adobe eventually releases some kind of publishing tool it will surely help give many blogs and self publishers a new avenue for publication, which will (no doubt because of the delay in that adobe app) compete with the big brand magazines. It is only the big brands presence on every newstand for 100 metres that keeps them relevant, so certainly they can’t afford to ditch the print magazine, even from a purely brand awareness point of view, especially when all ipad magazines will feel pretty much the same in the long run – format etc., but as has been stated by others a collated app as opposed to huge monthly download based on issue number would make more long term sense. Another point of view is to wonder why Condж Nast is helping out Adobe and pushing a publishing platform that essentially could wipe out its brands altogether with competition. They can only hang on to exclusivity for so long.

  29. @dave: Adobe has released the tool. It’s in a pre-release beta. Anyone can sign up for it. You need InDesign to make use of it. Dig around their website for the Digital Publishing Program prerelease.

    @Andrei: Project is trash. I’m all for innovation, but putting useless videos in place of photos is not an innovation. It’s called whiz-bang.