Next Issue Consortium Falls Down to Earth

Once, Next Issue Media looked like it might have a bright future. An unprecedented collaboration by five of publishing’s biggest companies, Next Issue was intended to secure their digital future by preparing magazines for digital delivery and creating an iTunes-like online newsstand from which to sell them.

Now, however, it looks like it could be the latest in a line of failed digital consortiums.
Nearly two years since the idea for the consortium was formulated, Next Issue has been a costly venture—backers Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith and News Corp. are estimated to have committed as much as $25 million so far—that’s gotten little traction.

The only goal Next Issue is still talking about is a digital newsstand, and even that’s far behind schedule. At last check, it was to launch this spring, a year after the original target date, and with only a few titles from each of the partner companies. It’s far from the comprehensive e-store its founders originally envisioned.

“They’ve violated the core premise of underpromise and overdeliver,” scoffed a publishing exec not involved in the consortium.

Next Issue is starting to look like the latest in a line of such consortiums. Back in 1995, nine newspaper companies, including Gannett and The New York Times Co., formed the New Century Network, an effort to create a centralized Web site to promote their local content. Each put $1 million into the venture. They pulled the plug two years later.

A regional Web consortium, Texas4u, failed to gain momentum. Same went for Maghound, a sort of Netflix for the magazine industry that Time Inc. launched in 2008. Outside print, there was PressPlay, an iTunes forerunner from Universal and Sony; and VOD service Movielink, a JV of the movie studios that lasted from 2002-08.

There’s also growing impatience with Next Issue CEO Morgan Guenther, an industry outsider. When Guenther was hired, Bob Sauerberg, president of Condé Nast and chairman of Next Issue’s board, gushed about his tech background (Guenther spent two years as president of TiVo), calling him “ideally suited to lead this venture forward.”

But when Guenther made his first big appearance as a speaker at the American Magazine Conference last fall, he embarrassed Next Issue board members, who privately complained that his talk lacked gravitas and substance. And there’s little sign that Guenther has reached out to other publishers outside the five founders.

Sauerberg and Guenther wouldn’t comment for this story.

Some in the ad community also are underwhelmed. “A lot of us were hopeful there would be certain standards and practices that…would make it easier to buy ads on the iPad,” said Roberta Garfinkle, svp and director of print strategy at Targetcast tcm, referring to yet another Next Issue goal that hasn’t had any traction. “It’s a little bit disappointing that the industry hasn’t moved very far along in being able to [do so].”

The consortium’s founders have more to show for themselves on an individual basis (Next Issue doesn’t have exclusive agreements with any of them). Condé Nast was among the first publishers on the iPad. News Corp. teamed up with Apple on the launch of The Daily, its tablet newspaper. And Time Inc. is launching its titles on HP’s new TouchPad tablet.