Several months after the iPad was released, an executive at one of the leading magazine publishers sent me an email with a chart attached and the message to the effect of “you have to see this.” They were the first research studies coming back from the early issues of digital editions of magazines for the tablet, comparing the time spent with each issue to the time spent with that brand’s Web site and the time spent with the print issue.
In many cases a brand would be lucky to collect 15 minutes of an online user's attention in a given month, while that same magazine brand could count on more than an hour with that reader in a hard copy. This was a gap that had befuddled and frustrated magazine publishers throughout the previous decade. Along with the ridiculously high print advertising rates they were extracting from marketers, it was this disparity between Web and print time spent that helped keep many publishers from investing very seriously in the Web.
But the bar on this chart representing time spent with tablet editions of the magazine was multiples higher than the one for the Web site and within 10 minutes of the monthly hang time for print. I remember asking the executive whether I was reading the chart correctly and if the numbers were accurate. And he told me that when they first saw the numbers they asked them to be run again, just to be sure. But this was that first rush of enthusiasm for the tablet on the part of magazines. They really saw in this medium a kind of salvation from digital hell. The tablet represented something much closer to the environment in which they were used to playing and winning. And so many magazines went all in for digital editions.
Several years later, the results are decidedly mixed. There are some magazines that actually have pulled a profit from their digital editions and have gotten deep penetration among subscribers. Hearst recently announced that it had surpassed 1 million subscribers to its digital editions across its many titles -- albeit a goal the company thought it would have reached by the end of 2012. And there are others who complain that the costs and workflow headaches outweigh the benefits and that they are struggling to attract a digital readership.
In recent months a number of magazines have revisited their digital edition structure and have tweaked it in positive directions. Specifically, one of the enduring weaknesses of the digital edition was its slavishness to print. While many of these tablet issues were enhanced technologically, their distribution and lifecycle were very much mired in the past. The issue was static, and in most cases you were only reminded that the app even was there once a month.
One of the challenges right now for magazines in the newsstand environment on tablets is to blend their static print content with the dynamism of digital platforms -- and in particular the wealth of daily and real-time content generated by these brands at their own Web sites. The disconnect between the Web product and the digital edition product is as noticeable as it is unnecessary. In most cases a magazine app opens onto a butt ugly store shelf of back issues. This is simply wasted space that should be much more dynamic and tied to the content that the brand is generating 24 hours a day at its Web site.
A couple of companies have tried to remedy this. Fortune magazine and The Atlantic have both been experimenting with hybrid apps that juxtapose content from the print product with the voluminous and more recent content from their Web sites. New York magazine recently issued a major upgrade of its digital edition that literally splits the screen. Swiping up gives you the digital edition of the magazine, which is also enhanced with a great many hyperlinks and digital callouts within the text. Swiping down brings you content from the NYMag.com site but formatted in ways that very closely resemble the print product.
Esquire magazine took another tack by issuing a weekly version of itself within its newsstand app. This complement to the monthly issue has some content from other Esquire-branded products, like its e-book line -- as well as exclusive material -- and at least one of its signature deep feature articles. I am not sure why it has taken so long for monthly magazines to see the opportunity in offering a weekly version on the tablet. But this is a model that helps overcome the monthly publishing cycles and keep a brand top of mind with the reader. One of the key challenges for magazines now is that the monthly cycle is so radically out of whack with the rest of content consumption that format doesn’t risk becoming irrelevant so much as just forgotten.
It is interesting that so many magazine brands are featured and appear to do pretty well within the Flipboard environment. Arguably, this aggregator does for magazines what the magazines should have been doing for themselves, finding ways to be relevant on a daily basis and to do so in a visible way. The irony is that Flipboard started out praising and mimicking the magazine format, deliberately courting many of these brands to be part of its family of featured sources. And now the magazines themselves are starting to take a page from Flipboard. Many of these experiments in hybrid formats within the magazine apps look an awful lot like that social media aggregator.