January 4, 2011

Why iPad magazines aren’t selling well

Filed under: ipad, journalism, media — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:20 pm

Women’s Wear Daily reported recently that after an initial burst, iPad-based magazines aren’t selling well.

Well, duh. They were designed to meet the needs of publishers, not readers.

Hey, let’s charge $5 an issue for something that requires little work because we can just export from inDesign! Genius!

As a former online news guy, I view the iPad app craze as an attempt by publishers to try to turn back time.

Many executives in the business still believe in the “original sin” of not charging for content online when news sites first launched. (Conveniently ignoring the reality that many newspapers, including ours, tried and failed to charge for online content.)

I’ve spent time with apps from all of the leading newspaper companies. They remind me a bit of TimesFax, a digest of the New York Times that was delivered by fax to remote locations. The only one that was engaging was USA Today — and that was because of their great implementation of the crossword. The magazine apps are gigantic — consuming about 500MB per issue. There’s little interactivity.

The apps give publishers the illusion of control. They can push a package of identical content to people, just like they do in print. The only people these apps will appeal to are those few who liked the PDF-like versions that the industry kept pushing. Yes, those folks might be drawn into subscription models. As long as ABC keeps counting this as circulation, they could use this to move people over from print and reduce costs.

The apps ignore four fundamental, irreversible trends:

  • Real time. People want stuff fast. Waiting a week or a month for updates is more and more unacceptable. In reviewing some of the newspaper apps, it was obvious that they were struggling to walk the line between being a reasonable replica of the print edition and being fresher.
  • Personalization. Even the nichiest magazine is going to have a lot of content that a reader doesn’t want. Again, publishers and editors want the feeling of control that they used to have.
  • Social. Social networks are increasingly driving content consumption. Most magazine and newspaper apps don’t work well within that environment.
  • Free. Except for very specific content areas, paywalls haven’t worked in the 15+ years publishers have been trying them. Not only are iPad magazines not free, they’re generally very expensive. You can get Wired in print for as little as $4 a year. They want that much for a single issue on the iPad.

They would all do better to skip the proprietary apps and work with someone like Flipboard, who understands all of this.

As I mentioned, ABC is allowing publishers to count these digital copies as circulation toward their print ad rates as long as they are reasonable replicas of the print product and contain the same advertising.

This is a joke. (Guess who pays ABC.) Advertisers aren’t stupid — they are going to begin demanding that they get metrics just as they do with online advertising

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