Are Tablet-Only Publications Dead?

Recent changes call The Daily, HuffPo model into question

Is there a future for tablet-only publications? The last few weeks have cast an ominous shadow over this niche industry following substantial staff cuts at News Corp.'s The Daily and a decision by the Huffington Post to give up on charging for its iPad magazine after just five issues.

While some media observers are quick to write off the format, many in the industry see recent woes as part of the natural growing pains of an emerging market.

A good part of the backlash stems from how inevitable tablet magazines seemed at their inception two years ago. With magazines and legacy print publications struggling, the iPad offered a flashy and interactive new way for publishers to bring new content to the tech-savvy masses without the burden of printing and distribution costs.

Two years later, however, the tablet publishing market isn't the runaway success many envisioned. Yet despite glaring questions from media pundits, many media buyers and industry veterans are surprisingly calm.

"This is a very new market," said David Rittenhouse, media director at Razorfish. "It's not like there is a tablet marketplace with billions and billions of dollars that HuffPo or The Daily is trying to capture. I don't know [that] it is something that happens all that quickly."

Rittenhouse said advertisers and buyers need time to see sustained audience numbers from native tablet publications. "I think it will happen, but it is unreasonable to say it will happen in a two- or three-year space," he said.

Yet for publishers in the digital age, time is a luxury most can't afford. Take Project, a monthly iPad-only publication started by Richard Branson's Virgin Digital Publishing with the U.K.'s Seven Squared around the same time The Daily made its debutProject launched with a sleek and highly interactive design and layout elements (and even saw 101,000 downloads over their first three issues). But as with so many tablet native publications, brands appeared uniformed or afraid of jumping on board when it came to advertising.

"I wish there were more creative agencies who would have pushed and encouraged clients to take the jump," a Virgin spokesperson told Adweek. "We launched the magazine out of naivety and sheer enthusiasm, but that does not imply any regret. We are proud to have launched the product and innovate in the space." 

In another twist on the model, Mark Edmiston—one-time president/CEO of Newsweek and now CEO of mobile publisher Nomad Editions—has begun finding success pairing up with established brands or websites to target specific audiences.

After largely striking out creating titles from scratch, Nomad launched Hemmings Classic Wheels with the Hemmings car marketplace in June. While it's still early, Edmiston said initial results are good: "We found it better to look for ways to reach out to a particular audience rather than going to America and saying, 'Here we are! Please buy us!'"

As with any emerging media market, more publications are sure to launch and then disappear. But some argue that failure isn't a harbinger of doom for the entire market. "Some initial failures will happen," Rittenhouse said. "It is uncertain what will be learned by them, but that doesn't mean it is a waste of time for publishers to enter the space. It is how new markets are made. For a media company with adequate resources and the drive to innovate, perhaps a quick failure is the best way for them to learn for the future."

The Daily, for one, is looking to do just that with a much leaner staff. Ultimately, if the content is good, one would hope, people will eventually show up. Yet few, including The Daily, have been able to make that a reality—which may be the greatest hurdle for the tablet-only publication industry. Despite heavy promotional support by Apple, The Daily only signed up 100,000 subscribers, far from News Corp.'s expectations. "There is not much in a lot of these publications that you can't find elsewhere, so what you see is a product problem. You have to give people a compelling reason to write the checks," Edmiston said.