Blog Post

Why tablet magazines are a failure

“We’re starting a new magazine,” the entrepreneur told me. “We have a potent niche to cover, and advertisers are dying for us to deliver interactive ads.”

Another woman I met with wanted to launch a tablet magazine about renewable energy. “It’s global and I have all the right connections to get it out there,” she said. “And I’ve found an out-of-the-box software solution to power it.”

Both projects impressed me. From an editorial point of view, they both nailed it. The entrepreneurs’ energy was great. A few years ago I would have been all in with them.

Today, though, my mind has changed. I fear the app-based tablet approach to magazines leads straight to oblivion, at least for individual magazine titles.

Not that tablets aren’t suited for reading. I discover most of the articles I read every day through my favorite iPad apps: Zite, Flipboard, Facebook (s FB) and Twitter. These apps don’t produce any content themselves. They’re merely curating what’s already out there. My dedicated magazine apps, on the other hand, have been lost among the many other apps on my iPad (s AAPL). I never read them, even those I pay monthly subscription fees for. Here’s why.

Eight apps a day

Last year, Nielsen estimated the average mobile user has 41 apps on his or her smartphone. In April, a Flurry study showed the average smartphone user opens only eight apps a day, with the most popular being Facebook, YouTube and game apps. And according to a 2012 report from Localytics, 22 percent of all apps are only opened once.

Though these numbers are for mobile in general, not just tablets, the picture is clear: There’s not much room for magazine apps. Magazines need extremely dedicated readers to avoid being buried.

Invisible in the stream of information

To make things worse, magazine apps themselves are invisible in the large streams of information governing the web.

When a magazine is organized as an app rather than as a website, its articles can neither be indexed or searched on the web. And even if they could, clicking the link in Google at best takes readers to an app store, not to the article itself — cutting the magazine out of the greatest traffic driver in today’s world.

The pattern is the same on social media. When you can’t link directly to an article, the urge to tweet or tell your friends about it drastically shrinks. And curators like Flipboard and Zite can’t look into, link or grab content from within magazine apps.

Antiquated monoliths

When I nevertheless manage to find the time to open up an iPad magazine, I feel as if I’m holding an outdated media product in my hands. That’s ironic because these apps tend to be visually appealing, with interactive graphics, embedded videos and well-crafted navigation tools. But the gorgeous layout that works so well in print gets monolithic, almost scary, in its perfectionism on the iPad, and I find myself longing for the web. It’s messy but far more open, more accessible and more adaptable to me, my devices and needs.

Most magazine apps also fail in social. They struggle to be “liked,” to attract comments and get shared, because only readers inside the app can fully join in the conversation. The orderly, closed magazine experience runs counter to the great social networking pulse of the internet.

Magazine apps don’t sell

This year, tablets will probably outsell laptops. Apple alone sells 15 to 20 million iPads each quarter. But magazine app success stories are hard to find.

This is shown in the most recent statistics from the Alliance for Audited Media. In the table below I’ve reorganized the numbers, plotting total paid subscriptions for consumer magazines against “digital replica” paid subscriptions. On average, the 25 bestselling digital replica editions account for 12 percent of total subscriptions.

Total paid & verified circulation

Digital replica paid circulation

Digital replica as %age of total circulation

Game Informer Magazine

7,829,179

2,974,510

38%

Reader’s Digest

5,241,480

292,285

6%

Cosmopolitan

3,017,990

246,815

8%

Taste of Home

3,207,340

215,658

7%

Maxim

2,001,940

211,429

11%

National Geographic

4,125,152

180,288

4%

Poder Hispanic

379,000

137,717

36%

OK! Weekly

502,205

135,709

27%

Star Magazine

805,621

117,554

15%

Men’s Health

1,884,156

109,935

6%

Wired

851,823

102,450

12%

ESPN the Magazine

2,128,345

101,325

5%

Popular Science

1,309,176

100,470

8%

O The Oprah Magazine

2,417,589

99,412

4%

GQ

964,264

99,185

10%

Us Weekly

1,959,784

92,600

5%

Parenting

2,245,060

92,348

4%

Food Network Magazine

1,713,949

91,491

5%

Nylon

218,037

79,616

37%

The New Yorker

1,055,922

78,511

7%

Vanity Fair

1,217,439

75,293

6%

Martha Stewart Living

2,088,788

73,733

4%

WebMD Magazine

1,478,569

73,568

5%

People

3,542,185

73,181

2%

Working Mother

760,563

163,539

22%

Paid total and digital replica subscriptions on bestselling U.S. consumer magazines ending 06/30/2013. Supplementary numbers. Source: Alliance for Audited Media.

Game Informer, which is owned by video game chain GameStop, seems to stand out with nearly 3 million digital subscriptions. But that’s because GameStop includes a digital subscription with purchase of its “premium” $14.99 loyalty cards, which also offer discounts on video games.

Other magazines are seeing less success in digital. Wired, for instance, launched its tablet edition in May 2010. The total number of paid subscriptions reached 850,000 by the end of 2012 — but only 102,000 of those are coming from digital. Both numbers fade against the number of monthly unique users to Wired’s website: nearly 20 million.

Evidence of success for standalone iPad magazines is even more difficult to find. The grandest attempt to make this new publishing platform work, News Corp’s “The Daily” iPad app, closed after two years of operation. The Daily only cost $0.99 a week, but with just a little over 100,000 subscribers at last count, it couldn’t break even.

For these reasons, entrepreneurs with ideas for tablet magazines haven’t convinced me to get on board. I believe the future for producing quality content for niches is both bright and promising. But it has to be presented openly, socially, in flow — not in closed tablet apps.

Jon Lund is COO and partner at knowledge-sharing startup memit and chairman of the Danish Online News Association. Follow him on Twitter @jonlund.

77 Responses to “Why tablet magazines are a failure”

  1. This article is definitely pitched at a very specific type of user (i.e: someone tech savvy and willing, at least initially, to invest in a digital mag subscription/s).
    There’s quite a large market of people with limited tech skills and/or low disposable incomes for whom digital magazines are both appealing and ‘familiar’.
    I work in a public library, and one of the challenges of our sector is raising awareness about the downloadable and online resources we provide access to. Digital magazines currently deliver the best ROI for us – they are an easy sell, and incredibly popular. My library service has a subscription to Zinio, and the popularity of that subscription with seniors and those in the 30s+ age range is high. Younger people are happy to avoid personal subscriptions to their favorite magazines, and seniors can see an immediate and appealing use for the new-fangled doohickey their family just bought them.
    There are some definite improvements to be made to digital magazines (the same can be said of other print items transitioning to digital) but pronouncing them a failure is premature, and too narrowly focused.

  2. This whole idea is completely ill conceived. How many magazine publishers do you know who make any profit from their online offering? None I suspect. Your article is about publishers forgetting tablet apps and embracing the web so why don’t you include facts about how much these publishers make out of web and social media? Publishers make next to nothing online and are expected to continue giving content away for free. Web doesn’t pay content creators it favours the curators – any magazine publisher will tell you that. How many of the publishers you list have a profitable paywall for web content? I can’t think of any. It is extremely inexpensive to provide a magazine readership with an app edition, and the profit opportunities from app editions far outweighs web. Think about it from the publishers perspective: Publishers have a PDF which can easily be enhanced for a global app marketplace with a free distribution mechanism – no print costs, no logistics. It’s all sweet profit, and the reader gets to read their favourite magazines on the plane without bringing their magazine rack. Consumers expect everything on the web to be free, so app editions make perfect sense for publishers. Sure, not everyone reads magazines on their tablet, but millions more people are buying magazines from Apple’s Newsstand than are paying to access content on the web. Publishers selling enhanced replica editions on app stores are making real money, not just collecting ‘likes’ and ‘follows’.

  3. Adam Wilson

    I’m glad someone finally wrote this. Of all the forms of media available on our tablets (music, books, films) magazines are the most fragmented. For everyone to have their own App is about as stupid as each Record Label insisting on their own music player.

    As someone constantly dealing with the production side of this part of the industry, and seeing the very low sales figures (especially in the UK) I would say the traditional format is doomed as far as digital sales goes.

    Employing a whole new team to produce digital editions, or just throwing a PDF into a App container, they’re both not going to save us.

  4. A few nitpicking details – you really can’t compare subs numbers with page views from their website, that is completely apples and oranges. Each sub may be worth in the range of 40-100 ‘page views’ each, so when this conversion is applied, it starts to look more in-line. Add in the fact that these views are by definition more engaged (as they have have had to jump that hurdle already) and then it starts too look better again.

    The most significant challenge that I see in this sector is the lack of advertising capability to address the tablet market. Ad agencies have no clue what to do in this space – is it web? is it print? is it TV? The reality is that it is it’s own channel and both content and ads must be developed specifically for it.

    The opportunity here is for niche publications with global appeal. Taking advantage of the penetration of App store, you can now reach huge numbers. The challenge again is how to deliver Ads that are not only relevant to the content – in my experience they need to be as value ad (ie of interest) as the content itself – but also market related. So until someone develops the technology and capacity to serve this market, digital magazines will suffer.

    The reality is that for most publishers, the App is usually just one channel they must be in – you also have to consider web, print, social and anything else. So getting it right and cross promoting is key here.

  5. Maybe tablet magazines are a disruptive innovation, the kind of innovations that have very poor indicators in their beginnings when compared with established markets.

    In this case, they are being compared with print and web formats, both huge & established formats with their own monetization problems (getting harder to fix with sustaining innovations)

    Being close, not indexed and not 100% social may turn into positive attributes if tablets magazines find a creative way to enhance their format in a very fast growing momentum for these devices.

  6. afonseca

    Interesting thoughts Mr. Lund… Just wondering possible business models under your suggestion on open and social way to deliver content. How are your suggestions on monetization? It’s proven that the path we’ve chosen by driving audience by delivering content for free while trying to monetize through ads in 1995 failed big.

  7. Could you blame this “failure” on readers from different generations?

    For many readers of an older generation, the web is becoming the new norm–the place they go to digest content, instead of print pieces. For these readers, the app world is the new “wild west.” It’s an unfamiliar place. It’s uncomfortable. Hence the lack in sales for those magazine apps.

    Younger readers (even kids that can’t read), are using apps more and more. This is familiar territory for them to digest content. Print magazines for the next generation of readers will be more unfamiliar than apps. This makes sense when you see that Game Informer has the highest digital replica paid circulation. That audience skews to a younger readership, more so than any other product in that data table.

  8. Howard Owens

    The first time in my life I subscribed to Sports Illustrated was when I subscribed on my iPad. Love it. I can’t wait for each new issue. I now have a few magazines I subscribe to, plus the NYT, on my iPad. I read these digital versions more frequently that I’ve ever read print subscriptions because unlike the print copy left on the coffee table waiting for a few spare minutes when I might be in its vicinity, the magazines are now with me in my vacinity whenever I have some minutes to kill.

    I’m not going to predict the future, but there are some clear advantages for tablet versions of periodicals that didn’t exist in the pre-tablet age. Time will tell if those advantages win out.

  9. I wish that as an industry we’d stop using so many absolute terms such as “failure” or “success”. We’re in the business of bringing value to consumers, who happen to be much more fickle than they were only a few short years ago. Publishers are looking for new ways to connect with consumers, because without them they are going to have a tough time building new revenue streams into the future. Unfortunately for publishers, consumers are using tablets all day, just not to read magazines. So this means they will have to evolve and find new ways of engaging that they can also charge money for, since all this investment in digital channels obviously costs money. The good news is publishers are realizing once again that their content has value, that it shouldn’t be given away in subscriptions at a fraction of the newsstand price, and that content is still king. The Book-A-Zine phenomenon proves that over and over.

  10. I am also an anomaly, because I work for a magazine that does an app version, and we have doubled our subscription base on the back of it.

    True, if you believe the current publishing landscape is a ‘sunset industry’, then 50% digital doesn’t sound that great. But even Wired’s tech savvy readership still love the experience of reading print, because forward-thinking publishers present more than a bunch of content sandwiched between covers – it’s about the whole magazine experience.

    It’s probably true that most information and opinion will be organised online in flow. But that’s only going to encourage the market for content that stops the flow, and curates it and presents it elegantly and intelligently, preferably on a device you don’t use 10 hours a day for work. A book or printed magazine is a good format. So it a tablet.

    The problem with this open-ended search for information online is users go in search of their own desires and prejudices. Curated content – magazines in this case – should present you with surprises, taking you places you wouldn’t have thought of looking.

    The other thing worth saying is that ‘digital replicas’ are horrible. A glorified PDF is not digital publishing. Hence the poor figures for many of these magazines in terms of digital readership.

    I don’t believe niche publishers will ever make money serving a free flow of content on the web. And maybe we don’t need publishers in the traditional sense. But while Everybody Works For Free has an appeal, in the sense that information is not about a top-down-flow, you also lose trusted sources or filters who do all the donkey work in terms of making sense of the world, and put that together with people who have interesting opinions and analysis. Journalism as we know it isn’t sustainable on the open web. Many people won’t miss it, I guess, but the reason existing publishing models haven’t been wiped away in a digital tsunami is because many people do see a value in it, and it works so long as you don’t think you have a god-given right to be the authority on anything.

  11. mark crowther

    You also need to consider that the brands that use magazines to advertize in now have publishing platforms (apps, facebook, twitter) larger than the magazines. I’d be interested to see you data table with columns added for facebook and twitter audiences and to include each magazines major advertisers as well.

  12. I agree. However, I have been using Magzter where it aggregates all the publishers on to one newsstand from all over and I can also read on my iPad and samsung smartphone where I can read anywhere and anytime. Also, they have the ability to share socially. I have found this to be very unique compared to downloading single apps. Some don’t read right and are slow. But Magzter seems to be simple yet intuitive, plus I can find foreign titles. Cheers!

  13. Bart De Pelsmaeker

    Hello Jun,
    I am a bit late in the game here – but I couldn’t resist commenting on this topic. First of all I want to congratulate you on your article! You put forward a strong opinion – and a contrarian one, different from a lot of the kool-aid large vendors are serving us.

    As founder of a digital publishing company I have been in this space for a while, and your article highlights once more the enormous paradox in digital publishing:
    tablets are very well suited for reading, yet as you put it “magazine apps dont’ sell”

    I think there are some very obvious reasons as to why success has been limited:

    Users are in general very unhappy with the apps. The average ratings on iTunes are 3 out of 5 for the biggest brands! Most cited are the gigantic downloads, the continuous updates and the crashes. Reading a magazine shouldn’t be that hard! I wrote a blog post about this (http://bit.ly/1c4xfYf) after a magazine app failed to download because it had filled up my 16 gig iPad…
    Admitted, these causes of dissatisfaction are about the same reasons as why apps in general don’t do well (+90% uninstalled within 1 month) but that is not really an excuse.

    You also touch on the question whether magazines as a format have a future…that is a really interesting debate. Certainly, a good chunk of tablet users like accessing content that has been curated by an editorial staff that they trust for their judgment on selecting and writing solid content. Sometimes social curation can be too much like looking for the golden nugget. Curation or in other words, selection, offers higher efficiency, and can have a life next to socially curated news feeds. The question for publishers is really about the economics of the value they’re bringing. And there are several ways of monetization.

    In other words, I end up agreeing with you. Future for quality content is bright. The delivery mechanism on the other hand is something that will require more work.

  14. I think the biggest issue is trying to convey a wealth of content through a small 9″ window.

    Reader behaviour isn’t being taken into consideration. The eyes need space to absorb keywords which is why the majority of newspapers, for example, are still in print today. There is a necessary cost to convey content effectively to the reader.

    As Apps, the job that the eyes did is now replaced by fingers; navigating, zooming in and out, pressing here and there makes for a clunky and tiresome experience which increases the chance of the publication being turned off – so all that content generated is wasted.

    Some may prefer to read this way but it certainly doesn’t suit all – if the App was available to all devices.

    The figures focus on the larger publishing companies as a rule of thumb but there are thousands of independent titles out there who service readers in their low thousands so why would they spend the little money they have servicing digital devices which may only attract an additional 100 people?

    The print magazine industry is on the up in refined and specific markets but we’re not talking quantities that matter but the quality of the content and the quality of the reader.

  15. Chris Sattinger

    Magazine apps are a kind of a skeuomorph. Its a hollow replica of a previous technology—glossy print media. But a real magazine has a psychological experience that is missing from the digital replica. Tablet misses texture, smell, sound (of pages turning). So its a let down to use the simulated version. The fact that people pay $4-7 just to get a magazine to sit in an airport is pretty significant. Its like buying a beer – slightly illogical. The digital version is content without the experiential benefits. You cannot curl it under your arm, thumb through the pages, cut things out, brush your hand along the glossy cover. And you can’t smell the perfume or try the facial creme. You can’t collect stacks of Italian Vogue by the side of your couch so that visitors can thumb through them and appreciate your taste. There is also the satisfaction of having read the magazine from cover to cover. Digital does not give you that, you always want to keep clicking. Its not consumable.

    You can’t just make hollow replicas of previous technologies. You have to create something new using the new technologies.

  16. Amy Castor

    Memory is cheap. We have plenty of room for the apps themselves. The reason magazine apps struggle is because people don’t want to pay for news anymore. So much free news and information is available online that magazines will have fewer and fewer dedicated readers.

  17. Felipe Escudero

    Hi.
    Some journals can’t be 100% tablet, especially publications wit scholarly content. Tablet apps can only be considered as another way for distributing valuable information.
    Revista Médica de Chile has an app that has been working well. It can be found at revmedchile.org. It has a different approach because it doesn’t leave its web base so it is search engine friendly, the articles can be shared in social media, it has push up notifications and you can read the journals offline. The good thing about these apps is that it provides interoperability for readers.