Thursday, May 8, 2014

Who Killed the Magazine App?: 9 Suspects

OK, I apologize for the over-wrought headline: We publishers tend to be trend-happy. When something that was supposed to be the Next Big Thing turns out to be The Most Recent Overhyped Thing, we reflexively start debating whether it’s dead.

“I would not say the app is dead, but it might have a bullet wound to the leg,” app designer Josh Klenert remarked recently in a discussion of -- you guessed it -- whether magazine apps are dead.

In 2010, all the cool people in publishing were working on apps. But four years after the Star of Bethlehem appeared over Cupertino to announce the birth of the iPad, sales of tablet-based editions are barely a footnote for most magazine publishers, constituting a few percentage points of total circulation.

Pundits and industry suppliers keep proclaiming the inevitable dominance of the magazine app and the Second Coming of Steve Jobs, but most publishers have moved on. Their thought leaders and business-development resources are now focused mostly on the Web – and occasionally, God forbid, on print.

Just an afterthought
Tablet magazines have become an afterthought, intended mostly to impress 22-year-old media buyers and to shave a few percentage points off the 3P (print, paper, and postage) costs of meeting magazines’ bloated circulation guarantees.

So what happened? Despite the obvious convenience and sometimes stunning beauty of tablet-based magazines, nine forces are preventing them from thriving:
  1. Publishers: The magazine industry has been widely criticized for its impatience, throwing in the towel too quickly on app development. In 2010, still smarting and scrambling from the economic recession, we publishers were still in the mindset, “If you can’t pull your weight, get the hell out of the lifeboat.” So when tablet editions showed no signs of immediate success, we cut off their rations. It didn't help that we undercut our apps by putting most of our content on the free web and by offering ridiculous discounts on print subscriptions but not on digital ones.

  2. Advertisers: “Advertisers remain skeptical about paying for digital circulation,” Thea Selby of Next Steps Marketing wrote recently. “They are not yet convinced, even though the advertising is placed in a magazine-like setting, that they should be paying for the digital magazine advertising as they pay for print, based on circulation.”

  3. Apple: The iPad’s creator teased publishers by creating its Newsstand as a way to encourage exploration and purchase of digital magazines, then neglecting it until it became an “unmanageable beast.” Now it’s mostly good for finding crappy Russian porn mags. It’s almost as if Apple’s lawyers told it to screw up its magazine business so that it wouldn’t get sucked into another antitrust investigation after the feds are through flaying its book-selling operation.

  4. Google: With its menagerie of updates – Panda, Penguin, and the like – the giant search engine keeps tilting the Web toward credible publishers with bylined articles by respected authors. That gives publishers more incentive to put new content on the Web and not inside the walled garden of an app. The one place where Google has failed publishers is with e-editions: When it comes to search involving digital magazines, Google does “a worse job than Apple,” says Neil Morgan of, who’s no lover of Apple’s Newsstand.

  5. Amazon: The e-commerce giant spoiled us by making books, both print and e-book, so easy to find and sample. It even has an elaborate recommendation engine that tells us about books we're likely to like. But it hasn't turned its exhaustive data or its magical algorithms loose on finding new subscribers for Kindle magazines.

  6. Consumers: C’mon, despite all the whining about the discoverability of apps, people can probably find an electronic edition of their favorite magazine if they do some searching, right? Yes, but American consumers generally don’t go looking for magazines to buy. They pick one up on impulse at the grocery store, at the hair salon, or at a friend’s house. They have to be cajoled into subscribing with breathless marketing copy and special discounts. Hell, when it comes to apps they have to be cajoled just to look at a free sample issue. And when they do subscribe to an e-edition, they often forget about it (and therefore end up not renewing) because they still pay more attention to what’s in their snailbox than to the notifications on their tablet.

  7. Angry Birds and its ilk: Despite an owner’s best intentions, there’s something about a tablet that wants to be more toy than tool. You’ve got a few minutes of down time and a tablet in your hands: Are you going to start plowing through that article on the global debt crisis – or try to beat your personal-best score?

  8. Netflix: Streaming videos can look fabulous on a high-end tablet. Yet another distraction.

  9. Smart phones: Phablets and app-heavy smart phones have turned tablets from a must-have item into a nice-to-have-if-you’ve got-some-bucks-to-spare luxury. Smartphone sales are booming, far eclipsing unit sales of tablets. iPad sales were actually down 16% in the First Quarter. When publishers said “mobile strategy” three years ago, they had tablets in mind; now the phrase means making your web site more smart-phone friendly.
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