Why news organizations shouldn’t write off tablet magazines

Jon Lund in GigaOM recently declared tablet magazines a failure.

That’s true in the sense that they haven’t substantially impacted overall magazine circulation. Using Alliance of Audited Media numbers, Lund lists the percentages that “digital replica” paid subscriptions, such as for tablets, contributes to the total circulation for 25 magazines. They ranged from a high of 38 percent of total circulation (Game Informer Magazine, a noted outlier) to 2 percent (People magazine).

Like Lund, I’d discourage any new publication from focusing solely on tablet apps, stored deep inside iPad folders or in the dreaded Newsstand, far from the dynamic reach of social media and the Web.

But sometimes it’s nice to retreat to a dark, quiet, closed-off space on a tablet. And magazine apps are contributing enough to circulation figures that we shouldn’t write them off as worthwhile components of our larger digital strategies — especially if publishers are smart about how much they invest in producing them.

Lund cites The Daily, which failed not only as a tablet-only publication but also as a tablet-only publication granted lots of free publicity by virtue of its status as an iPad pioneer. That’s a useful example in the argument against interactive magazines as digital media panacea.

But consider two of my favorite digital magazine apps: The New Yorker and The Atlantic Weekly.

The former, despite its irritating recent switch from paginated content to breathtakingly long scrolls, offers the cleanest, most convenient way for me to read New Yorker pieces. And it takes advantage of the tablet form without resorting to flashy interactive design. Short videos and poems read aloud by authors enrich the content without requiring lots of extra production resources.

The Atlantic’s foray into weekly publishing, meanwhile, also presents a model for tablet content that doesn’t profess to be a game-changer but fits nicely alongside the company’s other digital products. The Atlantic Weekly bundles pre-existing content from the Web that readers might have missed during the week. It collects only a few stories, presenting them all in the same simple design template.

Although these relatively simply apps certainly cost something in terms of staff and publishing-platform fees, Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet told Poynter in an email: “We do put a good deal of work into The Weekly – we wouldn’t be asking readers to pay for it if we didn’t – but we’ve been pretty rigorous about scoping that work to keep the costs in line with sales,” Bennet said.

The Atlantic Weekly requires work from four primary staffers: an editor, copy editor, designer and producer, none of whom work on this product full-time. He didn’t disclose sales figures but said they’ve exceeded expectations. Three-quarters of readers are monthly ($2.99) or yearly ($19.99) subscribers; single editions cost $1.99.

While it’s true that The New Yorker’s digital edition only accounts for 7 percent of total paid circulation, we tend to frame print circulation drops of 7 to 10 percent as pretty significant. If 10-percent circulation drops inspire feelings of doom, shouldn’t the prospect of 10-percent circulation boosts thanks to digital editions inspire feelings of hope?

Lund’s point that digital magazines suffer from lack of social connections is a good one. So is his point that phone and tablet users spend most of their time with only a few essential apps, and it’s better to meet them where they are — on Twitter, Flipboard and the like — than to hope they’ll remember to keep visiting your app, buried among dozens.

Yet the strongest media brands can meet readers everywhere; they don’t have to choose between having a website and having an app. That’s what makes initiatives like The Atlantic Weekly so fascinating — they recognize this notion that, sure, most of the time you just want to focus on your Facebook news feed and manage your email. But when you want to pull back from those demands on your attention and just read some good stories distraction-free — even if it’s just for the 20 to 30 minutes a week when you think to open the app — the Atlantic Weekly will be there.

Tablets are multifaceted — it’s pretty amazing that I can retreat from the chaos of the Web to a book or magazine or TV show on the same device that was overwhelming me before. (Remember: e-books, while no longer booming, have carved out a nice place in our modern lives despite being as disconnected from the social Web as digital magazines.)

Still, I’m concerned about some apps, like the sensational interactive Esquire. According to mobile editions editor Mark Mikin, it takes three designers, an in-house Hearst Digital Media post-production team and four editors to produce the magazine app. And that’s not all: “Every ‘print’ editor and every ‘print’ art director and photo editor contributes ideas for interactivity and multimedia,” Mikin said via email. “We really all sit down in one room with the intent of figuring out how to make every idea on paper something unique and engaging on the iPad.”

That all-in effort makes for a tremendous product, but it requires significant staff resources to reinvent so much print content. So I’m with Lund in one respect — it’s hard to look at the numbers and feel confident that a major investment in heavily interactive magazines will pay off. The many challenges — zeroing in on workable price points, figuring out how to bundle apps with other digital content, publishing on various operating systems, asking readers to routinely download large files, integrating app production into a publication’s overall workflow — make the task even more daunting.

Pages from The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Esquire

But that doesn’t mean publications should stop experimenting with apps completely — at least not until the Web becomes so robust that apps lose their advantages in bundling, design, and interactivity and this debate becomes moot.


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  • Edmund Singleton

    I remember during the Soviet era I took a visiting friend to my local super market, first she just stood in awe, with some much to choose from, she just wanted to leave for some small store with only a few items on its shelves…

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  • Carl Seibert

    Thought provoking topic… But maybe that’s not a compliment.

    In my experience as a consumer, most digital magazines are over-thought or overpriced or both. That could go a long way to explaining why they aren’t selling like hotcakes..

    There’s something about the magazine experience (as in print magazine) that’s pretty compelling, at least judging by the pile of money I spend on them and the piles of them in my living room. I’m all about saving money and trees, so why haven’t I migrated wholesale to digital versions?

    It isn’t that digital editions can’t get the job done. A good facsimile edition can deliver, let’s say, 80% of the print magazine experience, and in exchange for that “20%” I get any time any where availability, ads that I can click through, and maybe links to videos, or at the very least, the ability to read music reviews and listen to the music on MOG in real time. If I wasn’t hassled or gouged, I’d migrate ‘most all of my magazine reading to my tablet or phone double plus quick. (Yes. Inadvertent ’1984′ reference.)

    Many publishers price their digital subscriptions at the street price of their print subscriptions. What consumer in his or her right mind would pay full freight for all the production and distribution expense of a print edition and forego actually receiving said physical product? Not me, brother.

    Then there’s the technical hassle factor….. (Referring to Lund’s article, it’s not quite clear what qualifies as a replica or facsimile edition. I’m going to assume the metrics broadly include both executable applications and eReader types.)

    It doesn’t take much effort to produce a successful tablet magazine (if success is determined by whether I consume the title that way, which seems like a pretty good standard to me :-) ) If a print edition exists, all you need to do is re-save the print PDF file with modified output settings. Cost: close to zero. Do it right and add links to the ads and maybe a video or two and you’ve added maybe a half a person-day of designer time per edition. Such a title reads wonderfully in Acrobat or the eReader of your choice. (I like the Kindle reader on my devices.) And a magazine like that can be priced at the street price of print, minus about 99.9% of print production expenses. I make that about half of street price. Or bundle it for free with a print sub. Or give the darn thing away if you have some way of knowing who your customers are.

    On the other hand, you could make an executable app and expect your customers to trust you enough to install it on their devices. And install another app for each title they read. I have 150 apps on my phone, so obviously I’m not shy about installing stuff. But there’s no way in the world I’ll add twenty more, one for each magazine I may read, even if only once. It’s unthinkable. Yes, you can have tons of r-e-a-l-l-y expensive interactivity that way. But is interactivity necessary for the magazine experience, or is it gee-whiz bells and whistles for publishers to brag about to other publishers or Wall Street? Expensive interactivity might even detract from the “magazine” experience. If Lund was thinking narrowly about this executable app model, I’d say, “Well yeah! Look up dumb business model in the dictionary and there’ll be a screenshot of (insert most irritating title here-).”

    You can buy physical magazines on newsstands all over. You can pass them around. You don’t need special equipment to read them. Nowadays, we would call that “low friction”. Simple replica editions can pretty well (I can’t resist) replicate that experience. But put in some real effort and expense and you can have specialized e-newsstands with specialized reader apps and customer experiences that are a decent substitute for waterboarding. (Yes, I’m thinking about a particular service.) I can’t help but believe that doing that inhibits e-zine uptake.

    So, if I were to swap hats and think like a publisher….I’d say, “yeah, sure, keep it simple and go for it. What’s to lose, especially if you’re already doing print.” Or even if you’re not. (I loyally consume a PDF title that’s totally “magazine” for which no print version exists. It’s a tiny little company in a tight little niche. It’s quality is sumptuous, but t’s expenses aren’t.)

    Cheers!

    I should add one note. If I consume something every single day, or intend to, (NY Times, the newspaper I work for, or Zite) I don’t mind installing an app. Maybe that goes to the argument that monthly or weekly magazines are a more introspective “offline even if consumed online” experience. Maybe it’s an investment of time trade off. Or maybe that’s just me.

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  • http://www.bluevolcanomedia.com/ Marjorie R. Asturias

    Thanks for this piece! I’m actually slowly weaning myself away from print magazines to just reading most of them on a tablet. One of my planned purchases in the new year is an iPad, and while I intend to use it heavily for work I also intend to switch most of my print subscriptions to their digital counterparts. It’s not just that I can take dozens of magazines along with me wherever I go without having to lug all that extra weight. I’m a huge magazine reader and collector but have gotten pretty stressed about seeing all these magazines — some dating years back — surrounding me in my office. So as part of my “go green” and “stop hoarding” initiatives, I’ll be doing digital.

    And since I often find myself with pockets of time here and there throughout each day, I can simply pull out my tablet and read an article or two while I’m on the go. I do have my phone, but not only is it laborious to read on such a small screen, it really does provide too much distraction in a world already stuffed with it. Oh, email notification! Oh, a tweet! Oh, a Facebook message! Oh, an app is updating! It takes so much of the simple pleasure of reading a good article or just digesting the latest celebrity gossip.

    And like you, I’m not a fan of the production-heavy, interactive content that often plagues website content. Sometimes, you just want to read and think about what you’re reading without having to pursue every bright, shiny object. Reading is interactive enough — why spoil it with unnecessary distractions?

    Cheers!