If Apple has turned into a slumlord with its management of the Newsstand, publishers have turned into reluctant tenants
How much of the blame should be shouldered by Apple, and how much publishers, for the failure of the Newsstand to drive and maintain subscriptions of digital publications?
In his piece Fleishman mostly repeated the same points he had in his own blog post, written when announcing that that he would be shuttering his digital-only magazine following the December 17 issue. This time, however, the complaints about the Newsstand, and its failure to help publishers sell and maintain subscriptions, may be read by a somewhat larger audience. I doubt it will make a difference – unless the subject is covered in the WSJ or NYT, or possibly explored on re/code, Apple will not take notice. I know this because I have had conversations with Apple about the condition of the Newsstand for over a year and the company has consistently shown that they have no interest in making changes.
Nonetheless, this issue is too big to simply shrug off and move on. The Newsstand was touted as Apple’s gift to newspaper and magazine publishers, and most flocked to the Newsstand enthusiastically. But the Newsstand is like a brand new apartment building tucked away down some rarely traveled street, with a slumlord unconcerned with their decaying property, and with tenants unwilling to maintain things themselves. Both parties are to blame for the failure of the Newsstand, and by extension, with the failure of digital editions.
First, Fleishman’s complaints are basically that the Newsstand is an undesired home for digital publications, a folder where apps go to die. Further, Apple’s own policy of notifying readers that their monthly subscriptions will renew each month, which are of benefit obvious benefit to their customers, only serves to encourage cancelations.
Fleishman makes three new points, as well: “Magazines didn’t want to develop a new production workflow, didn’t typically want to bear the cost of app development in house or through contractors, and were required to produce “digital replicas” to count issues towards circulation in setting ad rates.”
This touches somewhat on a point I have made regularly recently – that Apple’s updating of its own OS is leading to publishers having to update their own apps regularly, or else face upset readers and lost subscriptions. One might argue that it is the duty of an app developer to keep their apps up-to-date and functional, but this is getting ridiculous as with each minor update of iOS thousands of apps end up broken. Publishers are starting to ask “who is the bad software developer here? The publishing platforms or Apple?”
Oddly, Fleishman does not address the fact that Apple has stopped maintaining the Newsstand, in general. While the home page of the Newsstand store looks in order, all the subcategories have stopped being maintained. Apple is well aware of this, telling TNM that if they ever decide to look at the Newsstand again they might consider cleaning up their mess (“Yes, we know the water heater has stopped working, so if we ever find our tools again we might consider fixing it. By the way, did you pay this month’s rent?”)
The reason this isn’t much interest to Fleishman is that his title has been constantly promoted by Apple on the home page of the Newsstand. Both he, and the magazine’s founder Marco Arment, have had all the advantages of Apple’s favor, and still suffered subscription losses.
“The Magazine has been the marquee independent publication in the Newsstand,” Fleishman admits in his Macworld post. “I don’t claim this out of egotism—given that I’m about to stop publishing new issues, that would be a strange trophy to grab. Rather, it’s based on both the way in which the app was seized on when Marco introduced it and cited as an example in the last two years, and by the relative position of our app in the top-grossing list in iTunes, where I know what my figures are and can thus deduce the relative position of much, much larger publications.”
If Apple has proved a slumlord, unwilling to even maintain their own property, then are magazine publishers without blame for the failure of their digital editions to attract, and then maintain subscribers?
Hardly. In conversations I have had with both publishers and digital publishing platforms, there is a growing recognition that publishers are not doing enough within their apps to help them keep their readers.
The first area often mentioned is in the area of notifications. Most publishers use notifications in a casual way, they send them out to the small group of readers that allow them to notify them of new issues. Most don’t use them at all.
“I read recently that the average individual with a smart phone picks it up 150 times a day,” Hano said. “If you are picking up that device that often, a bit of content coming into me every 30 days doesn’t feel right for the device that I am consuming it on.”
Hano suggests asking readers what their interests are and offering them tailored alerts centered on this interests. In this way, the reader will return to either the issues or the publisher’s website on a more regular basis.
“There is so much information that they can begin to drill down and begin to share with their consumers on a weekly basis, or on a more regular basis, that is pushed to their devices, so that when they pick it up, one of those 150 times a day, they see that little bit of content come through. And they begin to engage with the brand more regularly,” Hano said.
Most digital editions are replicas of the print edition. Even native digital editions are replicas in spirit. When the art director redesigns the editorial pages, what is missing from the new digital versions is anything native to digital from the marketing perspective. While print magazines are filled with subscription cards, digital magazines rarely include digitally native marketing features. How many digital editions include special surveys and other features that encourage the reader to interact with the publisher, voluntarily giving the publisher their email address or other information?
Another point often mentioned by digital publishing platforms is that digital-only publishers rarely do much to promote their magazines themselves, often launching their digital publications without even a supporting website (or else launching one that does not do much to attract readers). If the key to a successful book, magazine or newspaper is promotion, then the same applies to a digital publication.
In the end, Apple is to blame for the mess that is the Newsstand, it is their product and they are doing little to maintain or fix their property. But publishers have thrown their products into the Newsstand and let them sit there.
For the past year and a half I have begun to believe that both parties are actually happy with this situation. More than a few publishers have pointed to Apple and said that the Newsstand is proof that Apple doesn’t know their business. But most of these publishers were reluctant digital publishers to begin with, often launching PDF replicas and then sitting back and not evolving their approach to producing and selling digital editions.
Fleishman has done publishers a great service by openly discussing his decision to shutter The Magazine, and what he feels Apple’s responsibility in that decision may be. He has gone a step further than many are willing to go by sharing his numbers.
“At our height, the magazine had nearly 35,000 monthly subscribers paying $2 every month,” Fleishman writes. “Our peak, however, was February 2013. Knowing the numbers full well, I bought The Magazine in May 2013. We now have about 2,000 yearly and 4,000 monthly subscribers.”
Six thousand subscribers for a digital-only publication is actually pretty good when you compare those levels with those at large print titles. I often mention the number of digital subscribers a Condé Nast, Hearst or Time Inc. title have – and often hear back from the publishers wishing I hadn’t written anything. For most major consumer magazines, reaching 10 percent digital is proving hard. Some have reached that level, but are now sliding backwards.
WIRED is considered by many readers the perfect magazine for digital – when it finally appeared in the App Store readers iPad owners flocked to the app. On May 27, 2010, the magazine said that it has sold 24,000 copies of the magazine in the first 24 hours. Back then, magazines were selling issues one at a time, and it would a year and a half before Apple introduced the Newsstand.
“The real test for Wired magazine (and everyone else) will be to continue to meet high reader expectations once any novelty aspect wears off, and to come up with a subscription model as quickly as possible,” John Abell, then a WIRED editor, wrote on the magazine’s website.
But WIRED is struggling with digital subscriptions just like other magazines. Last June the magazine reported that it had 87,172 digital subscribers. This June that number slipped to 80,602, though single copy sales grew. If around 100K in digital is typical for a leading magazine with a rate base of 850,000, then The Magazine’s circulation of about 6K is probably not so bad. The real problem is then that these numbers may be declining, not growing.