Commentary

Learning Not To Be A Magazine

Last week Condé Nast mentioned that it was slowing its initial plans to bring all of the magazines in its portfolio to digital formats on the iPad. The company seems underwhelmed by early magazine app sales. Apparently, after the novelty wore off from those first touch-enabled issues of Wired, which topped 100,000 in sales of the first iPad issue, sell-through settled back into the 20,000s range. Some titles like Vanity Fair dipped down to half of that. The tablet publishing plan continues, but Condé will focus on increasing sales of its current suite of releases first. The New Yorker, GQ and Vanity Fair are among the monthlies that Condé puts onto the iPad.  In recent weeks, a free digital issue of Wired was released, underwritten by an Adobe sponsorship.   

Condé is among the publishers that have not gotten on board Apple's controversial app subscription plan. And so some of the headwinds it is experiencing come from the high (relative to print subscriptions) per-issue pricing. Popular Science was an early adopter of the Apple plan and reported that within the first six weeks it had sold 10,000 subscriptions to its iPad version. Maxim, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and ELLE are among the magazines also taking iPad subs, and Apple is returning the favor by actively promoting these mag-apps in the App Store.

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After having tried almost all of the magazine apps issued in the last year, I am less enthusiastic about the digital magazine model than I am by the more innovative uses of the platform magazine publishers have been exploring. The post-magazine app seems to me more interesting. Entertainment Weekly introduced a format early in the iPad's history that Time Inc.'s Golf magazine and Golf.com site have re-fitted into a Front9 app. Neither a magazine nor a Web site, the app features the top nine golf-related items from the week in an attractive windowpane format. The content mixes repurposed print with more dynamic Web site content and provides links to other relevant app, e-commerce opportunities or sites.  

Recognizing quickly that tablet users might want something other than a last-generation magazine model on their next-generation media consumption gadget, publishers started tacking to the special issue format by the end of 2010. Martha Stewart issued a very attractive cookie recipe app that featured screen-filling delectable images of treats and a recipe/cooking app designed for in-kitchen use. The notion that the lush visuals of the iPad were perfect for inspirational apps led to a very good Brides Wedding Genius app of bridal stylings. The special issue or pamphlet model has led to the more recent Vogue Cover Stories series of apps that scrape from a current issue an appealing celebrity feature (Lady Gaga, Rihanna, etc.) and pack around it some extra video and images at a low 99-cent price.

But the most interesting advances among magazine brands is where they start blending print content and design sensibilities with the dynamism of real-time feeds. Call it the post-Flipboard era. Women's Wear Daily, for instance, recently launched its WWD Blast app that pretty much app-ifies its Web content rather than reproducing the print brand. The main page is a newsfeed that aggregates the best new content and blogs in a touchable two-column format, but there is also a channel of fashion show videos and even a retrospective of 100 years of WWD that feels like a special-issue magazine. There is even a user-generated gallery.

People is a magazine app that keeps me coming back for the weekly issues, largely because it effectively uses its Web content. The magazine is refitted for the touch interface very well, with a lot of tappable slide shows and audio/video enhancements to reviews. But the celebrity stories also often have pop-up links to the latest relevant headlines from People.com and endless troves of images from its vast library. So the Robert Pattison or Angelina fans can just wallow in slides if they like. In a rudimentary way, People is suggesting that the magazine app can best serve as a sort of lean-back front end that also works as an entryway to the dynamic and deep digital assets of a media brand.  

This mashup of old and new formats is evident in Scholastic's recent Parent & Child Plus app. Here the magazine format is jettisoned entirely in favor of a single home page of topical boxes (news & reviews, ages and stages, in the kitchen, et. al.) that telescope out to show the current stories. Content from the magazine is here, as are weekly refreshes of most of the sections and near-real-time updates from the blogs. In other words, the tablet becomes a location where the magazine brand pulls its multiplatform content together for the reader that gives a nod to its print past without being enslaved to it.  

It is easy enough to beat up on old media for its foot-dragging, kicking-and-screaming-into-digital ways. But any cursory look at the rankings in the App Store show how much legacy media brands still matter. While occasional upstarts like Flipboard, Zite and Pulse may pop up with attractive new models for aggregating someone else's content, the originators of old media still matter. In many cases, these lumbering Goliaths work best when they lead by following -- learning from the newcomers the most promising paths to try, and then rethinking their content models accordingly. 

2 comments about "Learning Not To Be A Magazine ".
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  1. Scott Daly from 360i, April 26, 2011 at 1:29 p.m.

    Great post. I completely agree with you . . . both as a consumer and as a media practitioner (or whatever the heck they are calling us these days).

  2. Callie O farrell from The Really Simple Partnership, April 27, 2011 at 6:40 a.m.

    What is the trend with advertising revenue with the move to tablet devices?

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