Could the iPad save magazines?

It's looking ever more likely

Though it may have gathered the most attention recently, Huffington, The Huffington Post’s new iPad-only magazine, isn’t the only publication making a serious tablet push these days.

Publications continue to request entry to the Apple Newsstand app, that comes with all iPads, and to digital newsstand databases like Zinio, which goes by the tagline, “The World’s Largest Newsstand.” The recently hyped Next Issue, likened to Hulu or Netflix, additionally offers tablet users an all-you-can-read array of digital magazines.

Next Issue was first released in May 2011 for the Samsung Galaxy tablet, and since then, new platforms have been added gradually—most recent was the iPad launch on July 10. The product of combined efforts by five magazine publishing giants, Next Issue, currently offering about 40 magazines, has received some complaints for its hefty price tags but still has the potential to be very successful. Some of the significant magazines making appearances on these apps include Vogue, The New Yorker, Time and Sports Illustrated.

It may seem unreasonable for publications to be channeling so much effort into tablets when only about 19 percent of Americans own them, according to a study released in January. But the army of iPad and other tablet owners is rapidly expanding, so it could prove to be a lucrative outlet for magazine publishers.

While many readers still enjoy the print editions of their favorite publications, circulation through subscriptions and brick-and-mortar newsstands has long been on the decline. Newsstand sales of single issues have dropped for four years consecutively, including a 9 percent decline for 2011. While digital subscriptions for iPads and other tablets currently represent a much smaller share of magazine sales than print subscriptions, they are steadily increasing and predicted to continue doing so.

One Forbes article from March anticipated Apple selling 113 million iPads by the end of 2012, and 300 million by 2015. And a recent study from the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri showed that iPad owners across age groups consumed a higher quantity of news directly from media organizations than their counterparts who didn’t own iPads.

One way magazines are catering to this media shift is by reverse-engineering their print legacy products to look more like screens. Print editions that can be modified for electronic devices are not as easy to create as tablet editions that are then replicated in print. Designs, graphics and typefaces that look great on a glossy, printed page may not be as attractive in pixels. But by designing the magazine to fit the screen, there are far fewer restrictive qualities when shifting it back to print, since print is a much more open-ended medium. This tactic could provide publications with a lot more freedom for cross-platform availability of their content.

Ken Doctor recently noted that in addition to big iPad pushes by various magazines, some have even been repackaging old content for digital media consumption. He cites big-name titles like Wired, The Boston Globe, and The Chicago Tribune as publications that are dabbling in repurposed material in this format, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see many more follow suit. Some magazines are also offering back issues from before the digital age, so nostalgic magazine lovers can enjoy their old favorites on the screen. It seems that through the iPad, and other tablets like it, the magazine industry could find a promising future.

The path to a digital conversion may not be without obstacles. Next Issue’s pricing options are expensive, at $120 per year for a “basic” subscription to 34 publications, and $180 per year for the “premium” version that includes the five weekly magazines; if users plan to read only a few of the titles offered, it isn’t an economical choice. Also, the Apple Newsstand has been criticized in the past for its lack of accessibility, as Apple claims 30 percent commission on all subscriptions and requires that digital subscriptions be managed through the Newsstand itself, rather than through links to external sites. Apple also has the final word on which publications’ apps are approved for sale within the Newsstand, and this process can be lengthy. A final hurdle is that publishers must continue to attract advertisers, while desirable subscriber data is growing harder to track than in the past. (This was much of the reason that Time, Inc. held out for so long before offering their wares in the Newsstand.)

As more publications master the art of digitizing both affordable subscriptions and the advertising to sustain them, the iPad could prove to be the device that revitalizes magazine journalism.

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Molly Mirhashem is a former CJR intern Tags: ,