Digital Magazines: The Sad State of Affairs

Remember a few years back when the launch of the iPad sent print magazine publishers into paroxysms? While fearing for the solvency of their print magazines, they wildly jumped on the digital publishing cruise ship, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

After all, if Apple says a thing is hot and poised to change the world, who are they to disagree?

Fast forward to 2014 and it’s a big “not so much” for the expected rise of digital magazines. In fact, “magazine publishers have made comparably little progress in convincing their readers to consume their publications on the tablet, and few are able to derive significant revenue from their tablet apps,” notes Florian Kahlert in MediaDailyNews.

There are any number of reasons why this is so, with some experts citing Apple Newsstand and Google’s App Store failing to act like proper distribution channels.

“Some say that App Store is over crowded and others blame it’s like a Wal-Mart of the digital era,” writes PressPad’s Wojtek Szywalski in a guest post at Talking New Media. “[True or not], building organic sales through App Store is less and less effective because app stores were not designed to market apps.”

As the iOS has evolved, it seems to be leaving behind the idea of a functioning Newsstand. With iOS 5 and 6, the Newsstand resembled iBooks, notes Craig Grannell in RevertToSaved. Customers could easily see their own magazines and were visually prompted to go read them. With iOS 7, Grannell continues, that was no longer the case.

“[In iOS 7] the icon became a generic picture of four publications, and you now have to tap this to view magazine covers. So instead of a custom folder, Newsstand now has a strange ‘apps within an app’ set-up that doesn’t really seem to benefit anyone.”

This may indeed have played a large role in the demise of The Magazine, the previous poster child for digital publishing success. They are shutting down digital operations in December, according to Rob LeFebvre in CultOfMac.

The editor of The Magazine is not shy about placing some of the blame in Apple’s corner, noting that they were unable to keep up with the app development demanded by Apple, particularly in their recent launch of iOS 8.

“Apple’s disinterest in the Newsstand didn’t doom The Magazine,” editor and publisher Glenn Fleishman told Cult of Mac, “but it certainly meant that people who were already subscribers forgot it existed, and contributed to the drop in subscriptions.”

But is Apple to blame, or are they simply prescient? If Apple and Google aren’t giving digital magazines the robust support they once did, maybe it’s just a business decision to stop throwing good money after bad.

To understand why consumers aren’t in love with digital magazines, it helps to understand why publishers started producing them in the first place. And it wasn’t because their readership was clamoring for them. Rather, print publishers launched digital editions to shore up their base and justify higher ad rates.

“If the [numeric] goals for digital editions were initially all over the place, the reason to launch has remained the same: to preserve rate bases,” writes D.B. Hebbard in Talking New Media.

But even the modest 10% bump that was often set as the goal has been tough to reach. And for digital-only titles, it’s been an uphill slog all the way.

Even The Magazine, which reached 35,000 subscribers within relatively short order, has seen those numbers radically decline, to under 8,000. And we can’t escape the irony that The Magazine is crowd-funding their final publication, a printed book that will leave a lasting tangible record of what the digital title might have been.

So is the digital magazine doomed altogether, as Grannell suggests?

“Maybe people just don’t want to pay for content bundles and either want free websites, churn-based humour on Buzzfeed, or some kind of system where they can self-edit and cherry-pick what they think they’ll like (rather than possibly discovering something new),” he suggests.

Or maybe people just want their magazines in print. After all, consumer magazines are more profitable now than they’ve been in the last five years, according to Michael Rondon in Folio: and print advertising remains the clear frontrunner in the print vs. digital debate.

“Print advertising accounted for 43.6 percent of all revenue in 2013; digital ads brought in just a quarter of that at 11.3 percent-not far off from where they’d been over the last 5 years,” Rondon notes.

“From 2010 to 2013, respondents have consistently overestimated digital earnings and underestimated how much they’d still rely on print. The gap between expectation and reality has been as high as 5.6 percent,” Rondon continues.

Much like the gap between digital and print magazines in the eyes of the readers. It appears it will take more than a functioning digital newsstand to close that one.