the news frontier

iPad Magazines: Just a Little Bit of History Repeating

Tablet news following a pattern as old as paper itself
June 21, 2011

Last December, headlines decreed that the digital publishing world was falling apart. After an initial surge, iPad magazine sales were steadily—sometimes precipitously—dropping. According to a report that cited numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, November was a bad month for the iPad and iPad magazines.

Vanity Fair went from an average 10,500 digital sales (August-October) down to 8,700. GQ had its second worse month of sales with just 11,000 digital copies sold. Men’s Health lost nearly 30 percent of its sales, and digital sales of Glamour fell 35 percent from September. Even Wired, once considered the iPad’s golden success, shed 35 percent of sales, dropping from an average 31,000 sales in April to 23,000 sales in November.

Yet, the alarmists might have been sounding their bells too early. The numbers aren’t yet out for December and January, when magazine publishers and media critics are hoping more people picked up iPads as holiday presents. But even without those numbers in hand, it’s safe to guess that sales for magazine apps will stop plummeting—at least quite so precipitously—sooner or later as more users gradually enter the market. And that’s to be expected.

The adoption rate of iPad magazines follows a pattern similar to the adoption rates of most major publishing formats, from the earliest printing presses of the fifteenth century to the birth of the blogosphere in the late nineties. iPad magazines are not stumbling for the exact same reasons that the first books, print magazines, or “web logs” were slow out of the gate—each new platform had and has its own cultural, political, and technological challenges. But there are similarities between how those new technologies were received in the public eye and mind then that suggest the iPad magazine, rather than being in dire straits, is simply following a well-trod path.

The bend in that path that we’re still waiting for is the one where cheaper prices, wider availability, and normalization mean the new publishing platform takes off.

To see the pattern in past action, you might take a look at one very old technology that replaced a different, dustier kind of tablet: paper. The idea of reading on paper was once thought of as much as an elite activity as reading GQ on an iPad—and the pickup rate reflected that attitude in much the same way. Take illuminated manuscripts. These decorative texts were rare, time-intensive to produce, and expensive—paper cost a bundle and the manuscripts were often painted with precious, pricy metals. Low literacy rates meant most people were used to hearing books rather than reading them. Normalization would take time. The adoption rate, if it can be considered as such, was understandably low.

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However, as paper gradually became less expensive and rarified, it also became more widespread. It’s a pattern repeated throughout history.

The mentality that paper was precious began to change after Gutenberg came along, and by the infancy of the newspaper age in the 1600s, books and other printed materials were cheaper, faster, and easier to make.* They were no longer limited to the church or political pamphlets, and dissemination and “adoption rates” rose accordingly.

By the time daily newspapers emerged in America—a fluid time span around the turn of the eighteenth century—paper and print weren’t new technologies. They were, however, still somewhat novel. To those shoo-ing off Metro hawkers in the subway, it might be surprising to know that papers were met with excitement; many people shared and read a single issue. Some were even sewn together and offered as wedding presents, says Andie Tucher, the director of the Communications Ph.D. program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and an award-winning historian.

Newspapers were valuable but limited in scope. It was only when, like paper itself, they became more affordable to produce and more widespread that they took a firm hold in the culture. The introduction of the “penny press”—inexpensive papers geared towards the general public—marked a turning point for adoption rates. “A colonial newspaper would print maybe 200 copies of a particular issue,” says Tucher. “By the end of the 1830s you could print 20,000 copies of the same issue. So it was a lot cheaper and it also meant that a lot more people could read it…”

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.

*Note: This sentence originally read: “The mentality that paper was precious stuck right through to the infancy of the newspaper age in the 1700s. Then Gutenberg came along and made books and other printed materials cheaper, faster, and easier to make.” It has been changed for clarity.

Zachary Sniderman is the social good assistant editor at He has also written for Filter, The Last Magazine, and Maclean’s