AOL websites give best stories a second life in weekly iPad magazines

The mobile team at AOL is finding success with a new publishing model that plucks the best longform and enterprise writing from an otherwise fast-paced website and republishes it in a design-rich tablet magazine.

Distro is a free weekly tablet magazine that refreshes Engadget's best original reporting in a premium design package.

Their first venture is Distro. The iPad and Android magazine app pulls feature content from the tech blog Engadget.

Most of the 40+ daily Engadget posts are short breaking news, but a couple a day might go deeper: analysis, product reviews, trend stories or interviews. That’s the stuff that finds a second life each week in Distro.

There are several positive signs, AOL vice president of mobile David Temkin told me. Readers spend an average of more than 10 minutes with Distro each session, while the average visit lasts less than one minute. The app has extremely positive user reviews in iTunes. And it’s attracting readership in the same class as “actual, popular print magazines” such as Wired, Temkin said.

“I can’t share the absolute numbers, but if you were to look at the number of people who read Distro on a weekly basis... if this were a print magazine, this would be on the map,” he said. “We came out of nowhere, and it’s now very real.”

After piloting Distro for about six months, AOL is now looking to expand the model. It is working on a similar free weekly iPad magazine — codenamed  “Huffington.” (with the period) — based on Huffington Post content.

“We have certain other sites that in a way resemble Engadget in terms of their very high volume of postings, some smaller number of which lend themselves to a lean-back reading experience or a higher-bar presentation,” Temkin said. “So you could imagine us expanding this to those content properties at some point.”

Defined by design

Distro includes new visual content that didn't appear online.

Although the words themselves are republished from blog posts, everything else in Distro is tailored to a unique tablet experience.

The magazine adds some original content like infographics and a weekly editor’s column. Two or three staffers design and illustrate all the pages -- none of the layout is automated.

Former TechCrunch blogger M.G. Siegler wrote that the design is what appealed to him most about the Distro concept:

“One thing I’ve never liked about content on the Web is that 99% of it looks like absolute shit. There’s plenty of good content (including pictures), but it’s often wrapped in an ad-heavy shit sandwich — TechCrunch included.

I would love to see my best content wrapped in an elegant package, like a beautiful magazine.“

Headlines are rewritten in magazine style as well, dropping SEO keywords in favor of whimsy and wordplay. Distro’s March 23 cover story is “Pixel Perfect? Apple’s new iPad goes high-res,” which was polished quite a bit from the Web version headline: “iPad review (2012).”

'It feels like something that you pay for'

The content model seems to be a hit. The question for the long term will be profitability.

Temkin said one lesson has been that Distro functions much more like a print product than a website. That means AOL faces the opposite challenge as newspaper advertising staffs: a digital-minded sales team and digital ad buyers who are unfamiliar with print marketing dynamics.

“We have some homework to do. The good news is that we’ve built an audience, and we have a very high-quality product and the metrics are great,” Temkin said. “The bad news is that this isn’t really like anything else that we sell.”

Distro is free to read, and the forthcoming “Huffington.” magazine will be free as well.

“At this point we have a free product [Distro] -- that’s what the audience expects, that’s how it was launched,” Temkin said. “On the other hand, I would argue one of the reasons people really like this product is it feels like something that you pay for. Could something in this general area be a paid product? We think, yes.”

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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