September 2, 2015 Last Updated 11:42 am

Defining the ‘standard’ for digital editions: is it quantity, quality, or something else?

Are publishers as proud of their digital editions as their print editions? Some say that’s not the point, they’re doing what others are, producing ‘standard’ digital editions

The “standard” for digital edition is what? This is a question I am frequently asked –  at least once a month. I also hear form others quite sure they know what the “standard” is, as well. I think those most sure of themselves are not understanding what the term “standard” actually means.

Let’s check Merriam-Webster, the standard for definitions, if you will. 😉

Ignoring the first two definitions wich refer to something altogether different, M-W has this to say:

something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or examplee


something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality

For the first definition one can say that there is no real authority that has set the standard for digital editions, or various guidelines and rules. The AAM, for instance, has set up guidelines for what it used to call “Digital (Replica)” but the word “replica” was frequently misinterpreted and so the term now being used is “Digital Issue”. When the AAM did use the word “replica” it meant that the digital edition contained the same content, not was exactly the same in design as the print edition (though getting some publishers to understand this was, apparently, next to impossible).


Left: Condé Nast’s WIRED; Middle: Time Inc.’s All You; Right: Prss Inc.’s TRVL – which is the ‘standard’?

There are, however, standards set up by some of the digital newsstands. Many require that publishers submit PDFs, for instance. Apple requires one thing for its apps, but allows for quite a wide range of options for the digital magazines and newspaper issue themselves.

The second definition is almost the same as the first, but talks of qualifiable measurements.

M-W also gives another definition, right at the top of its page, that involves quality. That is something very different. The standard for anything, then, isn’t what is established by rules, but by those who judge one thing against another.

If you have noticed, however, nowhere is “standard” defined as that which is in the majority. The standard is not a measurement where the more something happens the more it is the standard. If that were the case, then the standard for baseball hitting is making an out, the standard for streaming media would be endless buffering. Is The Sun the standard for UK newspapers?

I would argue that there remains no standard for digital editions at all.

Some have argued that the standard should be what readers say in surveys they want in their digital editions. While I think that is a poor way to set a standard, I do think it would provide good guidance to publishers were the data derived from these surveys meaningful. Unfortunately, I think most of the surveys I’ve seen are fairly worthless in this area.

Most ask readers if they want their digital editions to look like their print editions, and many say “yes”. No surprise, it is like asking it you want your next car to be similar to your last. But if the person drives a Tesla before answering the question what then? Have they really changed their mind? No, they are simply able to more accurately compare one vehicle to another and are now in a better position to come to a more meaningful conclusion. That print magazine readers would prefer print should not be a surprise, they are print magazine readers!

But what if the survey results were organized a bit differently, with those results from those unfamiliar with digital edition in one pile, those more familiar with them in another? Then, take those results from readers familiar with digital editions and divide them again, into a pile where the reader has only been exposed to replicas and another where they have read both replicas and native digital editions. Only this last group, the smallest of all, would provide publishers with valid information.

Instead, most surveys are too general. This is a common problem with surveys. Most political polls are, as well. That is why we starting to see more polls being conducted where the massive GOP field of candidates is whittled down to only a couple of names.

The other problem in defining a standard for digital editions is that many want to count subscribers, then pass judgement. But this is again a very hard thing to do without better information.

Magazine and newspaper statements only provide a rough guide to what digital magazine and newspaper readers are preferring. For instance, in newspapers, publishers are less concerned with producing digital editions that can be counted as replicas, understanding that measuring the total audience is more important to them than counting readers of a specific edition. But magazines haven’t moved in this direction – at least not yet, but I think they will. Instead, we still have digital editions being created, for the most part, that attempt to qualify as “Digital Issues”. But sales from most of the digital newsstands are grouped together, whether these are PDF replicas coming from some digital newsstands, or native digital editions coming from the Apple Newsstand or Google Play. It is all the same.

Only when counting digital single copy sales from Next Issue do we finally see numbers we can understand. Take a typical magazine publisher’s statement and read it thoroughly. You’ll be surprised both by how much information is there, but how much is missing, as well.


Men’s Health digital editions: Zinio at left, Apple Newsstand at right.

Rodale’s Men’s Health is typical. The title’s latest statement says it has over 96K in Digital Issue subscriptions. Paragraph 9 defines the Digital Issue as “an exact replica of the print product in format and advertising content” – a very unfortunately definition as this really is not true. This language would lead you to believe the AAM is dictating PDF replicas because to have the same “format” as the print edition sounds too much like it must be designed exactly the same way. It does not.

In fact, Men’s Health has a very nice native digital edition inside the Apple Newsstand, while it has replica editions in some other digital newsstands.

The magazine’s statement mentions the digital newsstands it is in: “The Digital Issue is available at Zinio, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, the Apple store, Google Play, Readly and Next issue.” Great, so how many are being sold at each newsstand? It doesn’t say. And Next Issue circulation doesn’t show up in that 96K number mentioned above, it is to be found under Single Copy Sales – Digital Issue.

Here we get better numbers: the statement says Men’s Health has 45,441 digital single copy sales. Paragraph 9, section K says Next Issue sales are counting as single copy, and that there were an “average of 41,190 copies per issue from this program.” That means 4,251 came from elsewhere. Not exactly a lot of detail, but some.

The point is, in the end, that it is hard to see the real state of digital edition sales simply by looking at the published statements. Circulation managers have better numbers but most tell me they are generally disappointed by overall digital sales, and that only Apple’s Newsstand and Next Issue have regularly contributed significant sales. Several other digital newsstands have said they are seeing good sales, but none, in the five and a half years of tablet editions, have ever shared their numbers with me except in the most general way.

WinepaperIn the end, I would argue that there remains no standard for digital editions at all. So it is up to each publisher to decide what kind of publishing product it wants to present to its readers. They cannot hide behind false ideas of any standard.

Instead of trying to conform to any standard, wouldn’t publishers be better off trying to produce digital editions that they themselves find enjoyable to read? Most publishing executives I have spoken to do not enjoy reading digital editions anymore than the readers they try to sell them to do. Instead, I would recommend that the major publishers research the reading habits of those that love digital reading, mostly young readers. What do they want? What do they enjoy? How knowledgeable are they in the variety of digital editions available?

What digital publishers should strive for is not producing what the rest of the industry considers the standard, but what they consider a superior product. Most say they produce great print magazines. They should be as proud of their digital publishing efforts.

  • Paul DeHart 2 years ago

    I agree that there is no official standard in the industry. We work with thousands of publishers from consumer to business to regional titles. Notwithstanding the robust digital tools and capabilities we make available to publishers, however, the vast majority (99%) deploy rather basic, enhanced digital editions. These are replica editions with links, perhaps some rich media, and the ability to view mobile-friendly text versions of article content (something that our solution offers). I think the main reason for the overwhelming preference of enhanced replica editions is the fact that they are easy to produce and publisher’s still can’t say for sure that doing more will result in sufficiently more value.

    For what it’s worth, there is no real difference between a native app and a digital edition/replica other than the obvious benefits associated with a native app – downloaded app, downloaded content, and push notifications. Outside of that, many native apps look and behave just like the mobile web and desktop version – which is often just a basic, enhanced replica edition.

    In our experience, more content is being consumed on mobile devices whether by native app or mobile web app. To keep these readers engaged, the content needs to therefore be mobile friendly. I think the next step for enhanced digital replica publishers is simply deconstructed, scrollable and engaging content for mobile consumption. Publishers still need and want an easy solution. That is why we are pushing our publisher’s to our new Lily platform for a more engaging reader experience that is importantly still created from the same PDF they are already generating for their print and enhanced replica editions. This type of reading experience will become even more important as readers rely on content discovery applications like Apple News.

    I think the standard at the moment should be:
    1. getting good content
    2. in a clean and engaging format
    3. to readers on the devices they use
    4. as easily as possible