Blog Post

An oversight in iOS Newsstand: No free subscriptions

The team behind TRVL, an iPad-exclusive digital travel magazine, was very excited about the prospect of Apple’s Newsstand(s aapl); after all, recent numbers show that some publishers are seeing their products reach as many as 268 percent more subscribers because of it. But there’s a problem: TRVL has been and wanted to remain free, but Newsstand requires publishers to offer a paid subscription in order to be included.

TRVL got around the problem by offering a paid $0.99 per month subscription while also allowing users to download each individual issue for free. Its portion of the subscription revenue, after Apple takes its standard cut, will be donated to charity, which is a smart and generous way to get around this odd restriction. But I still think Apple is missing a beat in making paid subscriptions a required element of Newsstand titles.

Workarounds and why limits make sense

Restricting Newsstand to paid subscriptions is, admittedly, a good way of making sure that established, quality content from mainstream publishers remains highly visible in a section of the App Store where it doesn’t have to compete with the tide of free apps that might dampen discoverability. Newsstand’s store is still a relatively exclusive affair; after months of pre-release testing and nearly a month of public availability, it still only has 448 titles in total on the iPad.

Newsstand becomes an exclusive club

Keeping Newsstand free of free subscriptions, however, makes it harder for startups without the clout of major publishers, like TRVL, to make their presence known. If given the option of paying for a subscription for an established title like Wired versus paying for one that’s virtually unheard of — but an iPad exclusive trying to get started on the platform — most will opt for the incumbent.

In that way, Newsstand manages to undermine the underdog by making itself the go-to destination for periodical publications on the iPad, and then employing a system that favors established success over risk-taking newcomers.

A carrot for old media, but what about new?

I can see how Newsstand’s design appeals to publishers trying to get subscribers to follow them to digital, and it likely provides Apple much more leverage in getting premium publishers on board with in-app subscriptions. And Apple clearly wins by requiring paid subscriptions, since it gets a cut of each subscription. But to ignore the possibility that alternative revenue models (ad-based, for example, or publications funded by non-profits for the purposes of raising awareness) could succeed on Newsstand is to invest in the past of media, not the future.

Making free subs an option for Newsstand buyers would make it possible for new and innovative publications just starting out to compete on a more equal footing with the biggest players, which is exactly how the App Store has managed to bring us such amazing apps, like Angry Birds or Instagram. It could also provide an option for publishers who want to promote their full product with a small, free, recurring sampling. A free subscription of just a few select articles from something like the Atlantic might be a good conversion tool for customers on the fence about paying for the whole thing.

The cost and the benefits of free

Apple’s decision to keep Newsstand closed to completely free subscriptions has a way of keeping that section of the App Store relatively free of the wild west vibe that can often overwhelm in the rest of the store. But that also means that coming across unexpected gems won’t be as frequent an occurrence as it is with iOS software in general. I, for one, would like to see that change.

13 Responses to “An oversight in iOS Newsstand: No free subscriptions”

  1. Josh Komusin

    This article is taken out of context. If you read the linked article with the original information (on TVRL’s own site), it states at the bottom in a footnote:

    (*) Newsstand requires a subscription, either paid or free, but TRVL’s software supplier Woodwing only supports paid subscriptions.

    Newsstand was NOT the reason TRVL needed to find a workaround to its free subscription model. Newsstand allows for publications to provide free subscriptions. It simply requires all publications to offer subscriptions (whether free or paid) so that the apps fit with its notification model.

  2. We’re kind of in the same situation. Both of our publications will hit Apple’s newsstand. Both publications were free although we’ve always had the intention of charging for them down the line. Our per issue cost now is 99¢ and our subscription prices will make the issues even cheaper.

    Since one publication has been in circulation for a year now, potential readers can freely download a year’s worth of issues and then decide if they feel our magazine is worth paying for.

  3. Peter Deep

    So, it would appear that Newstand does in fact allow free subscriptions and that the proprietary software that TRVL magazine is using does not. I would hope the author updates this article with correct information, since it is entirely false. And one would hope that this author in the future will investigate his assertions before releasing falsehoods to the public, though I honestly doubt that will happen any time soon.

    • A “tech writer” doing some investigation? In this day and age? Perish the thought. Most are content with creating misleading headlines, simply rehashing another writer’s article (whether it’s true or not), or creating stories that pit one faction against the other (ie: iOS vs. Android) to increase page views to generate more advertising revenue.

  4. Ian Abbott

    Is this entirely true? The Metro Tablet edition for iPad in the UK appears in Newstand and has a free subscription… In fact Apple does support free Newsstand subscriptions – they are zero-priced one-time in-app purchases.

    However some third-party viewer apps used by publishers have their own licenses which forbid free Newsstand subscriptions. Blame them, not Apple.

  5. “In the real world, you would not give away a magazine in the hope that she would pay for the next issue. Apple wants to exclude publishers who would do this.”

    Paul, I think I see what you’re getting at, but what about all of those free/reduced price subscriptions whose entire point is to hook people into future subscriptions? Maybe it’s not issue-by-issue, but publishers are offering an initially low priced (or free) product and hoping to get future subscriptions.

    Even though companies like Zinio now pay in for subscriptions on Apple devices, Zinio is doing magazines very well, in my opinion. For me, it makes the newsstand obsolete.

    And by the way, the NYT is the only thing in my Newsstand iOS application, and it’s not worth having it around just for that. Going back to NYT on the web for now …

  6. Paul Denlinger

    I don’t think that leaving out free subs is an oversight; I think it’s deliberate policy. Newsstand is an attempt to address the main flaw for publishers (old and new) that it is impossible to monetize content on the Internet. In the real world, you would not give away a magazine in the hope that she would pay for the next issue. Apple wants to exclude publishers who would do this.

    For this reason, I see this as a good move.

    • “In the real world, you would not give away a magazine in the hope that she would pay for the next issue. Apple wants to exclude publishers who would do this.”

      Yes, they do. All the time in fact. The cost of a subscription barely covers the postage much less the pulp it’s printed on. Magazines get their money from advertising primarily, and the price of advertising is determined by the number of subscribers. If you look inside a magazine one section of a page will have the number of subscribers and the number of kiosk sales. They don’t ever want that number to go down because ad prices are negotiated with that number.

      I’ve regularly received subscriptions I’ve never paid for through filling out a survey and meeting their target demographic (middle class, developer with the authorization to make purchasing decisions).