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.
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.