Who Killed the Magazine App?

97% of Newsstand apps are now free

Illustration: O.O.P.S.

The Association of Magazine Media (MPA), the magazine publishers trade group, this month reported some seemingly encouraging results for an industry that’s become all too used to bad news.

While print advertising—still by far the lifeblood of the magazine business—continues to contract, ad units in magazine tablet editions have soared 22 percent so far this year versus last.

It would appear reassuring for publishers desperate to grow their businesses beyond the core yet shrinking print product. But the fact is that many of those tablet ad units are merely pickups from print—meaning that advertisers paid not a nickel for them.

While the tablet has dominated conversations inside the halls of publishers and at industry gatherings like this week’s American Magazine Conference in New York—and may well still represent the future—it has not turned out to be the savior the industry had hoped for. It says something that the tablet isn’t even on the agenda at the publishers convention this time around. Meanwhile, many of the industry’s most fervent tablet evangelists have moved on from their pulpits—among them, Meredith Corp.’s chief digital officer Liz Schimel, now with Condé Nast China; Time Inc.’s Terry McDonell, who stepped down as group editor for sports; Daniel Bernard, The Wall Street Journal’s original app architect, now at Time Inc.; and Scott Dadich, Condé Nast’s tablet czar, now editor of Wired.

Three years after Apple unveiled the iPad and revolutionized the way consumers interact with content, tablets still account for a tiny share of magazine readership—just 3.3 percent of total circulation. Not taking into account the top-selling digital title, Game Informer, which boasts nearly 3 million digital copies, the number slips to 2.3 percent.

The problem isn’t the device itself. Tablet sales are still growing at a brisk clip. By 2017, tablet users are projected to number 160.7 million, or about half the population, up from 128 million this year, reports eMarketer.

And consumers who do opt to read magazines on a tablet apparently love the experience. Publishers’ internal research indicates that the time readers spend with tablet versions is comparable to print. This, even though digital magazines, like print, still must compete with other media for consumers’ attention. Boston-based research firm Mequoda found that magazine reading ranked 11th in daily activities on the iPad, with 6 percent of tablet users doing so—far down the list from such activities as searching the Web (65 percent), going on Facebook (44 percent) and playing games (43 percent).

Publishers falling short of commanding consumers’ attention is not for want of trying—magazines have aggressively marketed their digital editions, to be sure. However, a number of obstacles seem to be just as aggressively working against the success of the tablet magazine.

The infrastructure for buying apps is one persistent problem. Maddeningly, app marketplaces don’t make it easy to find digital magazines, subscribe to them or gift them to others. And once a reader does go to buy an app, the download time can be a turn-off. Even Next Issue Media, the magazine consortium-backed e-reading platform, doesn’t make the process so smooth, requiring users to sign up online before downloading a digital issue of the publication.

The difficulty in buying digital editions has hampered the industry’s growth, affirms the MPA’s president and CEO Mary Berner. “What we’ve seen in tablets is, once a consumer has a magazine, there’s a high level of engagement,” she says. “So how do you remove the friction to buying something and make the experience better?”

Then, there’s the design—or lack thereof.

The tablet became a phenomenon in large part because of its lush, interactive elements. But when it comes to magazine apps, not only do the ads tend to replicate print, so does editorial content. For the large part, magazines are still cranking out plain-vanilla apps that feature little in the way of the bells and whistles that the devices offer and that consumers crave. Mequoda found that the most common complaint among digital magazine readers, in fact, is that digital versions offer nothing special or interactive.

There’s a good reason publishers have not been more innovative—they are encouraged not to be.

The Alliance for Audited Media (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations), the gatekeeper of magazine sales data, actually encourages the replica model by requiring that digital magazines include, at a minimum, the same editorial content as print editions if they’re to be counted as part of a title’s total paid circulation. Because ads are sold against that total paid circ number, nearly all magazines follow the AAM’s strictures.

It is a frustrating predicament for consumers—and also for advertisers.

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