December 18, 2014 Last Updated 8:38 am

A year in review: Major changes in digital publishing foretold in late 2013 news items

Newspaper companies began sell offs in late 2013, others talked of spin offs, and publishers began complaining that Apple had lost interest in their own Newsstand

The end of the year is usually the time when websites like to have people make predictions about the upcoming year. The great thing about the stories, from the point of view of an editor, is that they are often interesting, but readers rarely go back to check to see if any of the predictions came true.

TNM doesn’t like to do predictions so there are none to go back and check on. But it is interesting to see what stores were hitting late last year that either foretold the future, or else fell flat.

Wrapports sells to survive

SunTimes-front-featureLate in 2013 Wrapports, the owner of the Chicago Sun-Times announced that it would be selling the Joliet Herald-News to another local publisher, Shaw Media. The move was seen as an easy one to make as the Sun-Times was bleeding cash, and the local newspaper chain would be the logical owner. But the real significance of the story was that Wrapports was in a selling mood.

Ten months later, Wrapports and the recently spun off publishing company Tribune Publishing, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, announced that it would be selling off all its suburban properties to Tribune. Wrapports got more than just cash in the deal, it got a new printing contract for the Sun-Times. As for what it plans to do with the money, the thought was that the Sun-Times would pursue its national news strategy.

It will also now continue to develop its own local news network as part of its existing Aggrego Services division. The network of local websites somewhat mirrors the efforts of AOL’s Patch, which crashed and burned, though is not completely dead just yet. But while Patch was about local editors and local salespeople, the Sun-Times venture looks to be all about aggregated content in search of cheap traffic and incremental web ad dollars. – TNM, October 31, 2014

Tribune/Gannett/Scripps reject print, invest in broadcast

Around the same time Wrapports was selling off its Joliet newspaper, the Tribune Company was promising that it would be two separate companies come 2014. This happened, and though its parent company saddled the new publishing company, now called Tribune Publishing, with a boatload of debt, it was able to make the deal for those suburban papers.

But diversified media companies such as Tribune and Gannett were eager to invest in broadcast (and digital) not print at the end of 2013. Gannett bought the broadcast assets of Belo Corp (while also selling a couple stations to Meredith).

Although they were denying it, most media observers assumed that Gannett would eventually follow News Corp and Tribune in spinning off its publishing division. In August they finally admitted that this is precisely what they would do.

JournalSen-front-featureThat announcement from Gannett came just before Journal Communications and E.W. Scripps announced that they would be swapping properties – broadcast to Scripps, print to Journal Communications. The new newspaper company would change its name to Journal Media, while Scripps, proud that they had dumped print, saw no reason to change its name.

Who wants to own a newspaper? Certainly not those that currently do, and companies such as the Tribune Co. and News Corp have spun off their newspaper properties into new companies in order to separate out the print business from their broadcast holdings. Today, two smaller media companies, E.W. Scripps and Journal Communications, have merged in order to do that, as well. – July 31, 2014

Digital Publishing Platforms

In December of last year, the Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten announced that it would acquire Montpellier-based Aquafadas, the same owner of the eBook company Kobo Books. 2014 would turn out to be a busy year for Aquafadas as about a dozens stories ran here that mentioned the company (probably more if you include app updates).

Papergarden-feature2But it was a mixed year for platform companies. Adobe had to deal with negative publicity tied to its Digital Editions 4 software and then again when it announced that it would no longer offer the Single Edition app solution to Creative Cloud members as a free benefit. But Adobe also announced an exclusive digital newsstand deal with Samsung called Papergarden.

But while the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite may be seen by many in the publishing industry as the standard tool for creating digital editions (I know, many might disagree), the reality is that in 2014 the vast majority of new apps released into the Apple Newsstand were from PDF-based platforms, and the majority of those were revenue share platforms that allow for little to no investment on the part of the publisher, and where the platform tries to make it up on volume. The result, sadly, is that the majority of new digital editions are hard to read or poorly designed. Each week TNM receives a dozen or more requests to have this site look at a new digital edition, but almost all those requests are from PDF-built digital magazines, so what is there to say?

A Full Year Without Help From Apple

It is hard to believe that a year went by and Apple still has done little to improve the Newsstand. Thankfully, a few bogus apps were pulled recently, but the Newsstand remains a mess.

In 2013, TNM first wrote about problems with the Newsstand as the basic search mechanism was broken for a time, resulting in only a handful of titles showing up in any given category. That was fixed, but throughout 2014 Apple’s App Store team failed to return to the Newsstand to fix things.

Applenewsstand-blue

(I am always surprised when some readers are unaware of the issue, so for those new to this, let me walk you through it. Go into the Newsstand store via iTunes on your Mac or PC, or via an iPad. The home page of the Newsstand appears fine, though all the promoted apps are from a small number of major publishers. Then go into any category. What you will see is that the top carousel, were titles should be promoted, is blank, just blue boxes were magazines or newspapers should be. The “New” area below this is not filled with new apps at all, but an alphabetical list of apps. Scammers have caught onto this throughout 2014 and launched apps that begin with the letter A to get in front of the line.)

I had several conversations during 2014 with representatives at Apple about the issues with the Newsstand. The best conversation was with a developer support supervisor where I walked her though the Newsstand and she expressed shock and embarrassment over its condition. She sent me an email and instructed me to respond to it and said she would then pass it on to the App Store team internally. Unfortunately, the only response I received from Apple was an email that basically said that if they ever consider changes to the Newsstand they might revisit some of my suggestions… like actually maintaining it.

iphone_shelf_2xBy the end of 2013, publishers were noticing the issues with the Newsstand. In 2014, publishers such as Glenn Fleishman of The Magazine, the pioneering digital-only magazine founded by developer Marco Arment, were giving up.

“The sad truth has been that, while profitable from week one, the publication has had a declining subscription base since February 2013,” Fleishman wrote on his own site. “It started at such a high level that we could handle a decline for a long time, but despite every effort — including our first-year anthology crowdfunded a bit under a year ago — we couldn’t replace departing subscribers with new ones fast enough.”

Fleishman had many complaints about the Newsstand such as Apple’s policy of encouraging cancelations by sending notices each month to monthly subscribers. But Apple had always promoted The Magazine inside the Newsstand which led to 35,000+ subscriptions at its peak. But readership had dwindled to around 5,000 per month and today the last issue of The Magazine was published.

2014 ends with publishers no longer looking to Apple as a leader in digital publishing, realizing that they are on their own when it comes to reaching readers through digital media. The emphasis in 2015, many believe, will be on moving from relying on Apple for digital edition sales to self-reliance. That is, developing sales channels for their apps outside of any digital newsstand as Amazon and Google’s solutions have not made up for lost sales, or potential sales, tied to the Apple Newsstand. Several digital publishing platforms are aggressively moving to create sales solutions that would allow a publisher to sell their apps directly, while continuing to use all the various digital newsstands, as well.

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