September 16, 2014 Last Updated 10:57 am

City/regional magazines: The hidden price for not launching digital editions is depending on free circ to maintain readership

Many regional magazines have begun growing their ‘verified’ circulation levels to compensate for falling subscription and single copy sales, while ignoring digital as an alternative approach

The city/regional category of magazines is a fascinating mix of business models from high profile paid circulation titles, to those that use “verified” circulation to maintain their rate bases, to those who are more or less completely free. The reason for the wide range of business models is also that there is a wide range of editorial strategies being employed.

LA-iPadSome titles really aren’t classified as “city/regional” – one doesn’t consider The New Yorker magazine as a city magazine as readers around the world subscribe or buy single issues – and besides, the editorial is very broad in scope. But many excellent regional magazines have high editorial standards and attempt to reach a large audience – and, of course, the opposite is true, as many city magazines zero in on their local communities and seek to be the reader’s source for ads from local retailers.

Like B2B, the city/regional magazine category is one that has seen publishers move very slowly to create their first digital editions, then create their first native digital editions.

If you research the circulation audits of the magazines in the category a pattern emerges. Magazine publisher have been losing paid circulation and have had to look towards verified – that is, free – circulation to maintain their rate bases. In the meantime, digital circulation has grown very slowly, with the vast majority of titles lucky to reach the 5 percent level with their digital editions.

One major west coast city magazine that has pretty much maintained the level of its total circulation has seen its paid subscriptions fall around 35 percent, with single copy falling about 20 percent. A digital edition now exists, a PDF-based replica, but the latest audit shows the numbers very modest (around 5 percent of overall circulation).

City/regional magazines have a distinct disadvantage against national magazines because of their local focus. On the other hand, as Chris Perez, the publisher of Citygram , a digital-only magazine, told me this morning, many readers look to these magazines online and in the digital newsstands because they plan on visiting or moving to the region covered by the magazines.

A few titles have decided, based on falling circulation, to go all the way and become verified circulation magazines. The titles Modern Luxury do this as a business model in order to be able to control the readership demographics, and also to avoid the high costs of marketing to readers.

The category is an interesting test case for the argument – both for and against – that native digital editions will perform better than replica editions, or that editorial quality is far more important than the production method used to create a digital edition.

Emmis Publishing, which has a portfolio of city/regional magazines, has forced replica editions on to all its titles, even its better magazines such as TexasMonthly. The magazine has kept its circulation to around 300K for at least the past decade, and has seen only modest declines in subscriptions and single copy sales. One might think that because of this good performance, it might even be able to increase its total circulation through its digital edition. But the latest report shows the magazine with only 1.5 percent of its total circulation now digital, and readers inside of iTunes have criticized the Newsstand app as being antiquated.

Whenever I think of this category I always return to Citygram, the Austin, Texas magazine launched by Chris Perez in May of last year. Fourteen months in and the magazine is still being published, which would be an accomplishment for any new print magazine launch, but is probably even more of an accomplishment knowing that Citygram is a digital-only launch with a small, clearly defined geography.

Citygram-iPadBuilt using the Adobe DPS, the magazine faces few competitors the digital space as none of the local magazines for Austin have followed Perez in creating a native digital edition.

Despite its young age, the magazine has undergone a number of changes already. Only a couple months into its life it launched an iPhone edition, making its Newsstand app universal. In February of this year it added new subscription options. In April an update added the ability to add events to the reader’s Calendar and Reminder apps – a brilliant little idea for local readers wanting to remember local events.

“When I first started it (Citygram) I was an avid reader of digital magazines, os it wasn’t new to me,” Perez told TNM this morning. “Newsstand and features like that were things I enjoyed, and I had several magazines I subscribed to – GQ, Vanity Fair, Martha Stewart – all those that did a really good job. So when I launched it I wanted to do it right.”

“We launched in iPad first, and then we started out, going to events, we realized there was a need for an iPhone edition because that helped the word of mouth grow.”

Perez pointer out something I didn’t really think about: when out and about, a reader who hears about a new digital magazine can download the app from anywhere, right then. “You could download it when you got tot he event, when someone told you about it. That was a big deal and big move for us to release an iPhone version.”

This led to another decision: to launch a stand-alone app for the magazine.

“When I started doing that (the iPhone version) I started seeing more and more people use the app, too, and then I noticed that when they opened up the Newsstand I was the only thing in there!”

“I also noticed that this whole Newsstand concept was foreign and abstract to people,” Perez said. “I remember some people saying “I downloaded the app and I don’t even know where it went.”

“I wanted to make that move, but unfortunately Apple made it not easy for me. I could have have just updated the app changed it from the Newsstand to non-Newsstand (something that is not allowed). I had to create a whole new app, and so I have to think about it for a while about whether that was the right move or not. But eventually I say “yeah” and do both versions.”

So now Citygram is available in two apps: one simply called Citygram is found inside the Newsstand, while the app launched in July, Citygram Austin, is a stand-alone app.

While Perez would certainly like to see his downloads continue to grow, Citygram is already doing better than most established print city/regional magazines. Meanwhile, Austin Monthly, their chief rival in print, and a member of the CRMA (City and Regional Magazine Association), remains without a digital edition, depending on newsstands to distribute their title.

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