The penny press made papers widely available to a growing working class that was either uninterested in elitist soapboxing or couldn’t afford a daily paper. Talk of politics and government was mixed with sensationalist accounts of crime and celebrity, broadening its readership beyond niche markets. This, in turn, provoked a cultural sea change. “A lot of people in the working class who had never read a newspaper before because it had nothing in it for them, they started to feel they had the same rights as everyone else and they wanted to take part in public life,” Tucher says.
Availability, affordability, and gradual reader habituation helped newspapers proliferate.
The story of magazines follows a similar plot. While newspapers focused on the news, magazines were largely considered a frivolity for the leisured middle class. Despite their physical appeal, adoption was limited. What factors changed that? The same factors that helped the printing press and newspaper hit mass market: a cultural shift and increased distribution. People had more leisure time and magazines were able to offer more value—including photographs and illustrations, for example—at a lower cost.
The digital world necessarily overlaps with the history of print and news consumption. Radio took over from the telegraph as a way of instantly receiving information. The new technology was met with both tremendous excitement and an enormously low adoption rate. People were unused to the relatively expensive new platform, but as technology improved, radio broadcasts became more numerous and commonplace and radio became part of daily life. Broadcast, as you can guess, followed a similar line.
Blogs form an interesting middle ground between the world of print media and the world of technology. And I believe they are what iPad magazines most closely resemble, whether they like it or not.
The term “weblog” existed as early as 1997, but blogs didn’t come into their own until nearly ten years later. “The two big drivers were, one: the growing realization that this was a form that really worked, it was just a good way to publish information on the web,” says Scott Rosenberg, a co-founder of Salon and author of Say Everything, a history of blogs and bloggers. He explained that the second reason had to do with Google’s advertising model: “It was all driven by the awareness that Google provided, that pageviews had value You could just drop Google’s ad units into your pages and make a little money.”
Another factor was the natural growth of the Internet. According to Internet World Stats, in 1997 there were about seventy million Internet users. By 2003, this number had jumped to approximately 713 million. In September of 2010, this number more than doubled to 1.9 billion. Clearly, there is some chicken and egg at play, but the Internet and its over 125 million blogs now reach a massive audience of potential readers. And it’s all, more or less, free.
So how do the iPad and its slumping sales fit into the broader pattern of new platforms? Those sales mirror a long trend of historical adoption rates and cultural attitudes: initial enthusiasm for a new platform, slow adoption, and then gradually increasing sales as the population gets habituated to using the new technology. “Things never knock off,” Tucher says. “Technologies are introduced over a number of generations and the acceptance varies according to what you know before, what you’re used to.”
But history is not always guaranteed to repeat itself. iPads are not a guaranteed success and could still easily go the way of laserdiscs rather than DVDs.
Much has been made of Apple’s selling a whopping seven million iPads a couple of months around the holidays. However, the number of iPads in the market is still only a fraction of what Internet users represented in 1997, let alone 2010. More telling will be if the iPad, and tablets at large, will be able to saturate the market the way that the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and televisions were able to become a mainstay of the modern household. It doesn’t help that digital magazines are less a technological revolution than a portable iteration of something that already exists. After that hurdle, however, the iPad will still need to sort out its closed app marketplace, Apple’s limited support for subscriptions, and nationally declining print magazine sales.
The final test for iPad magazines will be whether, like newspapers and magazines and blogs and even Gutenberg’s press, people will become habituated to its new format. The success of the iPad will likely come down to whether we buy its distribution model and accept it into the culture, or decide that iPads, tablets, and their magazines, really are just a gimmick.