Magazines Won’t Be the Killer App for Tablet Media

The working end of the new year hasn’t even started and already the media is having a tantrum over the iPad. This the morning the Wall Street Journal tries to make too much out of a supposed war brewing between Apple and Google to win over the magazine business even as media mavens have all but declared the iPad magazine dead on arrival. In the interest of setting expectations–especially as we await the news of iPad 2.0–let’s take a small step back and assess the possibilities for magazines and tablets.

The pervasive hope in early 2010 was that a tablet reader could “save” magazines. Implicit to that discussion was a confusion over what ails magazines and newspapers. Most media folks confuse audience size with business success. However, the crisis of the media in 21st Century is not a failure to reach an ever larger audience. What frustrates everyone is the decline of advertising as meaningful way to support the media. The iPad and apps made from magazines or newspapers do nothing to address this. If anything, tablets threaten to further cannibalize the advertising base.

Hence the confusion over how to interpret the news presented by John Koblin in WWD late last month that Conde Nast’s single issue sales on the iPad were producing unspectacular numbers. Koblin’s numbers showed that the biggest names in glossy magazines–Glamor, GQ, Wired and Vanity Fair–were all having trouble posting iPad sales that made a meaningful dent in the five figure range. For magazines with a million subscribers and that can sell hundreds of thousands of copies on the newsstand, seeing single-issue sales of less than 10,000 copies is a bummer.

Fred Wilson blames this on the idea that people will pay for content. In his post on magazine app deflation he says:

I don’t understand why anyone would ever think that adding a presentation layer on top of web based content would make it something people would want to purchase when they are not willing to purchase the same content directly on the web.

Frederic Filloux has his own explanation for why those app numbers are so low. The short version is that iPad magazine apps are neither fish nor fowl. They really only appeal to those with limited access to the magazine titles either because they’re not subscribers or they live in places where newsstand copies are hard to come by and very expensive.

For Filloux, magazine apps that integrate subscriber access with the convenience of the tablet are far superior to self-contained apps. That points to the real problem with looking at Conde Nast’s iPad numbers. They don’t really reflect anything meaningful. Buying a single-issue magazine app is like sipping the ocean through a straw. It’s not so much that the access to content is occluded but that the access to the magazine itself.

Newsstand sales are driven primarily by magazine covers and often by a must-read story. In both of these cases, the magazine app is not the easiest route. iPad apps suffer from the bottleneck that is iTunes which is really nothing more than a shopping cart. It certainly isn’t a place–like a supermarket checkout line or an airport kiosk–to promote a magazine cover.

With nowhere to merchandise magazine apps, why is anyone surprised that they don’t sell. More to the point, magazine publishers should be elated that the apps are not selling and cannibalizing their newsstand sales. Mashable points out that magazine app sales roughly track (the sample is mostly meaningless) the overall newsstand sales of that same title. That just confirms what we already know: magazine apps aren’t a new venue for magazine content, they’re just another distribution channel.

Which leads me to the real point about tablets and content. Expecting some explosion of magazine sales on tablets is a bit like hoping talkies will make a silent movie star bigger or television will ignite the career of a radio personality. In both cases, there were performers who made the transition. Some, like Ed Sullivan in the old days or even Larry King whose reign just ended, even became bigger stars in the new medium. But very few did it by simply moving the same content and format to a new venue.

The tablet is a powerful device that does have the potential to change media. But it’s not the device or the apps that matter. The tablet is an expression of the power of the cloud. Content that makes the most of the cloud with its multiple access points and easy transition between print, audio, video and still images is the content that will win.

The New York Times’s David Carr makes the excellent point that all content looks the same on the iPad. He could have gone further. If all content looks the same on the tablet, then those who can create all the different sorts of content are the ones who will dominate. That’s why we see the power of Reuters and The Wall Street Journal on the iPad because they’re both moving ahead with the full panoply of media production.

Monthly magazines are particularly hobbled when it comes to creating content for tablets. They have small staffs. Giving the readers several new things every day requires a lot of bodies, coordination, scheduling and advanced planning. One reason that Conde Nast was a fabled place to work was that the margins on fashion advertising were so high and the staffs at the magazines were so small that there was a lot of money to throw around.

With the recovery, Conde Nast’s main business should be moderately protected. Fashion, beauty and fitness magazines probably face a bigger threat from the growth of retailers like Gilt Groupe than they do from other venues for luxury advertising.

In the meantime, the laboratory of tablet media will continue to thrive in large organizations like News Corp, Thomson Reuters and the rest where someday in the not-too-distant future someone will hit on the magic formula and begin to grow a whole new brand for the tablet era.


Google Digital Newsstand Aims to Muscle In on Apple
Wall Street Journal; January 3, 2011

The Great Mashup of 2011
New York Times; January 3, 2011

Memo Pad: iPad Magazine Sales Drop
Women’s Wear Daily; December 30, 2010

iPad Publishing: Time to Switch to Version 2.o
by Frédèric Filloux
Monday Note; January 2, 2011

iPad publishing: time to switch to v2.0

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