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The basis of optimism is sheer terror

14 Aug 2013  |  Peter Houston 
Peter headshot Colour

The launch of the iPad, and later Apple's Newsstand, marked the beginning of a rare period of tech-fueled optimism for the magazine industry - but after some high-profile flops, was this misguided? Peter Houston, founder of Flipping Pages Media, finds out.

Optimism is a rare commodity in magazine publishing. There's no need to rehash the grim market realities here, let's just agree that there hasn't been much for magazine makers to cheer about since the financial crisis exposed the structural weaknesses of the industry in 2007 - 2008.

There was one bright spot. The launch of the iPad - three years ago now - marked the beginning of a rare period of tech-fueled optimism. Clearly designed for leisure and entertainment, the slick new device was a good fit for the glossies. It restored portability to digital magazines, opened up international markets and best of all there was an inbuilt distribution and payment mechanism in Apple's Newsstand. We thought we had been saved.

But as Oscar Wilde has Lord Henry Wotton say in The Picture of Dorian Gray - The basis of optimism is sheer terror.

"We praise the banker that we may overdraw our account, and find good qualities in the highwayman in the hope that he may spare our pockets." And we cheer on the iPad pioneers, anxious that we can also find salvation on the shiny tablet.

Unfortunately, the last couple of months have brought signs that while magazines on the iPad have been dazzling the world with their interactive bells and whistles, the magazine model might continue to moulder in the attic.

There was a collective intake of breath last month when Future plc - the poster child for the digital publishing revolution - closed not one, but two iPad-only magazines.

Tech., a weekly spun out of the popular TechRadar website, was closed just seven months after launch with Future execs saying it wasn't delivering. Tap!, an iPhone and iPad app review magazine, closed around the same time - almost exactly 12 months after its print counterpart was buried.

The headlines around these two high-profile closures predictably wondered out loud what we were all thinking privately - was our iPad optimism misguided?

Media folk could never be accused of letting the truth get in the way of a depressing story and the conversation around these two closures moved quickly from specifics to doom-laden generalisations. The truth is both Tech and Tap! had very specific problems that on iPad, print or stone tablet would have made it difficult for them to survive.

Tech. was a weekly dealing with news handled perfectly well on a daily basis by its parent website. Tap! operated in a technology review space packed with free alternatives and suffered from the loss of marketing clout that its print counterpart had delivered.

However, there are some bigger lessons to be learned, and the biggest of them all is that new technology alone will not save the magazine market. Audience development, what we used to call circulation marketing, is possibly the clearest example of technology failing to deliver.

We could debate forever the principles of effective iPad content, design and positioning, but without enough paying customers - readers - no magazine, regardless of platform, is going to survive for long.
At the peak of our iPad optimism we convinced ourselves that Apple had an app for that; Newsstand would take care of everything for us. It doesn't.

Finnish app developer Marko Karppinen recently called "Bullshit" on the virtual magazine store and said Apple needed to "make it clear to publishers that it is their job, not Apple's, to find the next generation of readers for their publications."

Like a kid hyped up on too many blue sweeties, the magazine industry got itself overexcited. I just saw a headline moaning that consumers in the United States are moving slowly to adopt digital magazines. Slowly means 3.3% of subscribers in the US are digital, just three years after the introduction of the first device to make digital magazine subscriptions viable. It took the telephone 25 years to reach 10% penetration; tablets managed that in 18 months.

Optimism is not enough, but pessimism isn't the answer either. Commenting on the Future closures for the Guardian, David Hepworth wrote there is nothing inherently wrong with magazines on the iPad, "but it will take almost as long to reach maturity as the traditional magazine market and will require just as much trial and error."

Future's approach - fail fast and move on - is probably as good as it gets. And these closures are just a reminder that we are in the early stages of this evolution, that we're still making mistakes, still learning and that the painting in the attic maybe still needs some attention.

Peter Houston writes about magazines - in pixels and print - at the Flipping Pages blog.

Is this because magazine publishers looked to transfer print from paper to digital, as a mere facsimile, rather than translate the brand (where the title was one) into something that used the inherent qualities of digital? And is it also a failure of agencies and clients to do likewise, and produce commercial communication content, rather reproduce glossary press ads in a pixel format?

Vic Davies
Course Leader and Senior Lecturer
Bucks New University

I think maybe initially readers go to the iPad looking for 'magic', maybe more interested in the novelty than the actual content - but how long can that last? Long term, interactive features have to add value or they're just a distraction. Tech and Tap were actually pretty sophisticated, but that didn't save them.

Also if it was only about the bells and whistles, replica editions of print magazines wouldn't get anywhere and there are some doing relatively well, especially when you consider investment vs return. I agree that agencies have been slow to pick up on the possibilities of tablet advertising and that has to change for tablet magazines to be commercially viable.

The negativity (mine included) comes from disappointment that there was no quick fix and impatience driven by a desperate need for revenues lost from print. Publishers want results fast. It used to be an informal rule of thumb that a print magazine had three years to break even.

The iPad isn't even three years old yet and we're questioning whether tablet magazines have a future. It's surely more realistic to see this as a work in progress - like Future appear to be doing, giving up on an individual title, but not going full tilt on the format.

Peter Houston
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