October 27, 2014 Last Updated 1:22 pm

Newsweek’s Newsstand app still gets promotion from Apple, but readers continue to complain

An attractive digital edition is nice, but readers more often complain about subscription services and app crashes than they do the actual design of the digital magazine

This weekend I was part of a roundtable on digital editions and one point I tried to make was that readers often complain about the apps in the Apple Newsstand, but that the vast majority of complaints have to do with subscription mechanisms rather than the magazine itself, or the design of the digital edition.

Newsweek-cover-iPadA good example of this is Newsweek, the newsweekly that for many years was owned by The Washington Post.

Newsweek, right from the beginning, has been the somewhat weaker competitor to TIME Magazine. The two weeklies are tied to the hip because Newsweek was actually founded by an editor from TIME in 1933. The Post bought the magazine in 1961 and for many years the two newsweeklies fought it out.

But things were not well when the Post sold the title to audio pioneer Sidney Harman in 2010. The magazine had so much debt that the final sales price was $1 (along with the new owner assuming the debt). Later that year the magazine was merged with the website The Daily Beast and Tina Brown took over editorial control. What followed was an editorial farce best exemplified by the cover story “Hit the Road, Barack” by Niall Ferguson. If Newsweek was going to survive, Brown bet, it would have to out do Fox News. It didn’t work.

At the end of 2012, that part of the magazine’s life was mercifully ended when it was announced that the print edition would be shuttered. Less than a year later the magazine was sold off to IBT Media, the publisher of the International Business Times. Earlier this year IBT Media returned Newsweek to print.

Through it all Apple’s App Store team has promoted the digital edition of Newsweek. As can be seen with the demise of The Magazine, promotion by Apple no longer translates into paid subscriptions. Apple makes these decisions completely on their own, oblivious to the opinions of its own customers. Of the more than 3,800 readers ratings for the Newsweek app, only 12 percent of them are 5-star, with over 60 percent of them 1-star.

Newsweek-TOCBut the new reader may be surprised that the reviews for the app are so negative. At first glance the Newsweek app, just recently updated, would seem like a fine digital edition.

The new update is actually the first for the app since July of last year, which probably is the source for much of the problem. Readers complain that the app does not recognize their subscriptions, or that they can not download issues. Normally one would have expected an app update following the release of iOS 7 last year – not doing so was an invitation to trouble.

The new update, as the last one, says it has “updated account management features” – but the newest reviews remain negative.

The app offers single issues for $4.99, and a monthly subscription for $3.99. That is higher than many other titles, but remember this is a weekly so it is actually quite a bargain.

If there is one lesson magazine and newspaper publishers should have learned after 4+ years of the digital publishing platform, it is that the first job of any app is simply that it works. Readers only occasionally complain about digital editions that are merely PDF replica, or are native but have excessively large file sizes. But they complain all the time about apps that do not recognize them as a customer, or that take away the issues they have already downloaded (this is common with magazines that are sold to new owners).

The digital team at Newsweek appear to be producing a modern, attractive digital edition, but until the back-end of the app is working properly, readers will continue to complain. Luckily for the magazine, Apple is oblivious to it all.

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