Why Your Tablet Magazine Isn’t Getting Any Better

    by Aileen Gallagher
    September 25, 2014
    Photo by Chengyin Liu on Flickr and used here with a Creative Commons license.

    I looked at my first tablet magazine in 2010. With a few exceptions, the ones I look at today aren’t all that different now than they were then. For the most part, they are magazines that look and navigate like print editions with some “enhanced” elements – an interactive graphic here, a video there. Phones get bigger and digital audiences keep growing, but magazine publishers can’t seem to create a digital product that people want to pay for.

    Four years in Internet time is forever. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all launched within less than a four-year period, and none of those sites looked or worked the same for very long. Yet tablet magazine innovation sputters. I spoke to some industry experts to determine where magazine publishers got stuck. (I tried to talk to publishers too, but they were not as responsive to my queries about why their digital editions sold so poorly.) Here’s what I found.

    “It’s an additional distribution source for publishers to sustain rate base in order to maintain and grow their revenue.” - Robin Steinberg


    Designer Joe Zeff created some of the earliest tablet magazines and is now vice president and executive creative director for mobile developer ScrollMotion. The first iterations of tablet magazines, he told me, were just early releases on new technology. “That’s not a reason to declare tablet magazines a failure, but a first step in what they will be in the future,” he said.


    A successful tablet magazine requires a complete restructuring. “It makes no sense to me that Conde Nast and Hearst, with so many titles, have been unable to present consumers with the opportunity to mix and match from those titles,” Zeff said. “That type of curation is what we do every day with our Facebook and Twitter feeds. We pick and choose where we’re going to get our information and if there’s something we don’t like, we mute it.

    “Rip off the covers off of their magazines and let the consumers choose what they want. The idea that everyone gets the same magazine makes no sense to me.”


    Image from Drake University tablet magazine project. Photo by Jeff Inman.

    Image from Drake University tablet magazine project. Photo by Jeff Inman.


    Layering enhanced content on top of a print-centric magazine doesn’t take advantage of the tablet itself, write Drake University’s Jeff Inman and Jill Van Wyke in paper published in the the Journal of Magazine and New Media Research called “We Were Promised Jetpacks: The Digital Magazine Non-Revolution and the Waning Promise of an Enhanced Content Explosion.”

    “Active touch makes a digital edition feel native,” they wrote. “Touchscreens create the expectation that you can interact not only on the individual buttons, but on the screen’s canvas itself. As brands transition from a print-focused model to a digital-centered model, they must give readers an experience that allows users to use the whole screen.”

    What sets a tablet apart from any experience is the potential interaction between reader and content, Inman said in a recent interview. “Is there a way to present things with touch?” he asked. “Obviously, that’s why anyone’s reading anything on the tablet. They want to touch it.”

    Tablet magazine content disregards the device’s unique capabilities, Zeff agreed. “Location awareness. My tablet knows where I am, how warm it is,” he said. “My magazine should be able to leverage that kind of information.”

    But really, it’s about revenue

    The Alliance for Audited Media, which makes the rules for how magazines define distribution, requires publishers to include only replica editions in the rate base. The replica edition has to include everything that’s in the print edition, from the table of contents to article titles to complete text. A nonreplica edition – one with “different editorial, advertising, photography, graphics and layout than the print edition” – cannot count toward rate base, according to AAM rules.

    So the kind of experience that might actually appeal to users, the kind that’s updated more than once a month or draws on a brand’s deep content trove, is discouraged by the publishing industry itself.

    Image from Drake University tablet magazine project. Photo by Jeff Inman.

    Image from Drake University tablet magazine project. Photo by Jeff Inman.

    “Publishers view this as revenue,” said Robin Steinberg, the executive vice president, director of publishing investment and activation at powerhouse buyer MediaVest. The replica tablet edition, she told me, allows publishers to use an existing product to support their numbers, even if only by the barest percentage of total circulation. “It’s an additional distribution source for publishers to sustain rate base in order to maintain and grow their revenue.”

    If publishers are unwilling to pursue business models that don’t revolve around rate base, innovation suffers. As a result, tablet editions are still replicas and make up only 3.8 percent of total paid circulation, according to AAM data. What excited readers in 2010 just bores them in 2014.

    “Unfortunately, four years later, interest is low from the consumer and marketer for this form factor,” Steinberg said. “So the challenge is, how do they innovate and rebuild a product to create increased value and deliver a more meaningful user experience at scale? That’s yet to be determined.”

    The technology is there. The audience is there. The publishers need to get there too, said ScrollMotion’s Zeff.

    “The economics of print make it harder and harder to justify. It doesn’t offer the same economic benefit as delivering something digitally,” he said. “If publishers find the right mix of content and utility that excites consumers, it’s a win for everybody. It’s in their interest to make it work.”

    Aileen Gallagher teaches magazine journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. She was previously a senior editor at NYMag.com and has written for New York​, Vulture, Slate and other publications in print and online.

    Tagged: digital advertising ipad journalism publishing tablets

    9 responses to “Why Your Tablet Magazine Isn’t Getting Any Better”

    1. InklingBooks says:

      Ah yes, the old “everyone will have a flying car” syndrome. Just after WWII, many chattering pundits were oh-so certain that, since so many had been exposed to flying in WWII, the fifties would see flying cars in abundance.

      It flopped, in part because many of those servicemen (including my dad) had a very bad experience with flying. It also flopped because those pundits didn’t understand all the complexities of flying. To them, flying cars were just cars that flew.

      Calls for more multi-media suffer from similar follies. First, much if not most of the public shows no interest in what’s now being called layering. When they sit down to read a magazine, they want to read not twiddle with a complex UI that includes all sorts of things that move about, much less video and audio. If they want the latter two, they’ll seek them out.

      In addition, like those flying cars, additional medias introduce expensive complexities. I can easily quote from another article in my article. That’s fair use. But I’d be in big trouble in most cases if I insert a picture from elsewhere, much less a video. Make that video yourself? That’s very pricey—from $1,000 per minute for something crude on up. You can create a lot of words for that same $1,000.

      G. K. Chesterton often made fun of what in his day were called prophets. Today we call them pundits, but their track record at predicting the future is no better now than then. People who’re drawn into chattering about what’s going to happen are often those who haven’t a clue about how things happen.

    2. Jon Jermey says:

      I’ve got an idea. Why not connect everybody up to some grand universal network, and allow content creators to set up special-interest nodes on that network which are continually updated with relevant news and stories? We could call them — um — ‘websites’, and make most of them free. Wouldn’t that eliminate the need for static, outdated, expensive tablet magazines?

      Oh wait — it already has.

    3. SteveQuinn says:

      I’m totally unconvinced by the arguments made by these so called “industry experts”. Touch? Being able to touch every part of the page? That’s what’s going to make people whip out their credit cards? Seriously? How will that ability materially aid the information being conveyed? The simple answer is that it won’t. It’s a gimmick.

      A la carte pricing? So I’m going to subscribe to any stories a given magazine or publisher writes about a specific topic of interest? What happens when an issue doesn’t contain a piece on said topic? It remains far easier to get information, in a la carte fashion, from the web.

      I’m just not convinced the tablet affords journalism any truly compelling advantage. Multimedia capabilities (videos, animations, etc.) are costly and time consuming to create and, in most cases, don’t significantly aide the conveyance of the information they’re based on. Interacting with other readers? Comment platforms like this very one I’m typing on already do that. Interacting with the author or subjects of a piece is impractical given the limited time an author can devote to each piece, and is already facilitated by commenting platforms.

      At the end of the day, journalism is about conveying information. It could be a story, an investigative piece, an opinion piece, but at it’s root, it’s simple conveying information – something words alone are fully capable of, and something multimedia gimmicks can often distract from. At some point, adding to something only detracts from it.

      A few final thoughts: There’s only so much news that can be written about, and one need only visit a book store, magazine shop or consider how many sources on the web are already competing for people’s attention. The laws of supply and demand might apply here – there’s simply so much supply that demand is low to non-existent. Also, as quantity increases, quality often goes in the opposite direction. Most of the articles I read these days barely qualify as coherent thoughts, and many times, are little more than thinly veiled opinion pieces of dubious accuracy. Once standard bearers of the very ideal of an informed citizenry have become tools of corporate manipulation, with articles filled with the best bias said corporations can afford, written by pundits who stand only to profit by the ruse. Truly good, unbiased journalism with *my* best interests at heart would get me to open my wallet far sooner than all the gimmicks in the world.

      Lastly, despite working in the industry, and in some cases, producing the very magazine apps that have so far failed to catch on, why didn’t the supposed experts cited here implement any of the ideas they assure are the solution to the industry’s problems? I’ve been hearing the same suggestions for years, yet no one has even mocked up an example of their solution for all the world to see. At this point, talk is cheap.

      I certainly don’t have the answers, and it’s becoming more and more clear that neither do these guys. Perhaps journalism is like a piano – the existing tools are already as good as they get. Adding electronics or effects won’t make it any better. Composing a better piece will.

    4. Is it some sort of requirement that there has to be a version of a magazine that people want on tablets? People like different kinds of content in different ways. Maybe they just like magazines in print.

    5. tkabes says:

      This article almost put me to sleep. The real reading begins in the comments section. I commend Steve Quinn, Jon Jermey & Inklingbooks for hitting the nail square on the head.
      Is it possible that maybe a magazine should be made of paper and you should be allowed to flip through the pages, not be bombarded with more electronic wizardry.
      Yes it is true that we might have to cut down a tree to make paper. Trees are replenishable. We plant 4 million trees a day in the USA – So don’t be afraid to make some paper, we’ll plant more.
      And the paper plant and the printing press and the shipping department and the designers all employ people and keep our economy moving forward. And when the magazine has had it’s last page turned it is recycled back into the earth to grow a new tree.
      Everyone should do this simple experiment. Take a ipad and a magazine and throw them in your back yard. Add a little moisture, heat and oxygen. Then every six weeks go check on what item is decomposing faster. 3 years from now most of the ipad will still be there, however the magazine will have long been turned into soil and will be feeding a new 2 foot tall tree.
      It is amazing that the pundits would argue that subscribing to a digital magazine is actually better for our ecology! But who’s to argue with the experts.

    6. Zena says:

      “The technology is there” what do you recommend Aileen?

    7. Alistair Dabbs says:

      >> “The economics of print make it harder and harder to justify. It doesn’t offer the same economic benefit as delivering something digitally,” he said.

      Actually, I’ve been finding the opposite. Digital publishing is often so expensive that, by the time you’ve factored in all platforms and extra development, it’s much MUCH cheaper to print and distribute, old-style. Advertising revenue is still better for print too.

      As I see it, the thing holding digital publishing back is reader inconvenience: logins, authentication, online access, screen legibility, environmental versatility, battery drain, sharing, etc. Your iPad might be tracking your location but mine is not. Readers of print mags don’t have to put up with all that nonsense, so when they try switching to digital, they feel as if it’s just too much hassle. Fix those issues first.

    8. david kaye says:

      Love the comment from Steve. Spot on. For full disclosure – I work at The Economist. That said, I think The Economist has a model that works. Don’t count digital editions to print rate base and create an experience that the audience loves and will pay for. For The Economist, that is a wonderfully stimulating, reading experience.

    9. Elizabeth Yale says:

      I personally feel that there are a lot of incredible changes to digital magazines in toto. I have been reading magazines digitally since 2010. For what i remember as a digital magazine just by flipping pages has vastly changed now…… starting from moving cover pages, interactive articles, e commerce, advertising options, gifting options and much more…… there is a vast difference for what a digital magazine on a tablet was and to what it is now…. I read all my magazines digitally on MAGZTER …… reading on Magzter has always been a blissful experience.

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