December 7, 2015 Last Updated 7:33 am

Enthusiasm for the digital edition fade at many magazine firms, even as access continues to grow through library systems

Circulation directors, who once dreamed of being able to rely on growing digital subscriptions to reach rate base levels, continue to fight to make their numbers

The digital edition was, for about two years, the one area of magazine circulation that looked promising, as digital circulation went from “not reported” to near 10 percent, in some cases. Titles such as Wired grew their digital subscriptions to that magic 10 percent level, helping overcome declines seen in newsstand sales. But growth slowed, and in many cases reversed, beginning in late 2013. Wired, which once claimed 10.2 percent of its circulation in digital subscriptions, now reports 7 percent.

Cosmopolitan is another example, and a more dramatic one. At one point the Hearst title was claiming 243,882 in digital subscriptions. A part of this was because of a combination promotion, as well as other promotions. Some have claimed that Cosmo’s digital circ was always a phantom, and that the declines seen today (digital subs stand at barely over 100K) shows that digital editions were never really selling.

I strongly disagree. Promotions have been a big part of print sales for years, as has promotional discounting, something that is less prevalent in digital subscription sales (because changing prices inside the app stores is a chore). So, while promotion may have pumped up the numbers somewhat, it doesn’t account for all digital growth.

Cosmo-jan16-300For Cosmo, the problems with their digital edition really started when readers started to complain about the app itself. For a long period of time readers said their app either crashed or would not load magazines. Readers let the magazine know about it in iTunes, posting over 1,400 1-star ratings, and many written reviews explain the frustrations with the app. Recent reviews are slightly more positive, but with the demise of the Newsstand, it is unlikely that the digital circulation will recover – at least not the “Digital Issue” category which is where digital edition subscriptions are found.

Most discussion about digital today in the magazine world centers on “total audience” a concept best exemplified by the MPA’s Magazine Media 360 reports. According to the MPA, magazine audience growth was nearly 10 percent in the first half of 2015, making magazine publishing one of the fastest growing segments in the US economy – something absolutely no one believes.

The idea that measuring total audience reflects the power of a magazine brand makes sense, but it does little to actually sell advertising. The list of magazine being folded continues to grow not because total audiences are declining, but because too few ad pages are being sold into these struggling titles.

As I warned four years ago, growth in digital advertising outside of print magazines will not immediately effect those magazines that are number one in their field, but those further down. Print budgets, for the most part, are not being eliminated, but decreased and money shifted. Print ad buyers have a choice, cut across all the titles they are buying, or else trim titles. Competitive publishers know they need to be creative with both their rates and how they package their proposals in order to keep their schedules. Some win and keep their pages, others lose it all.

The digital edition, at least for two years, was the one tool for maintaining a rate base. But while digital editions were still growing, Borders was going out of business, Source Interlink was being shutdown. Finally Apple gave up on the Newsstand. Many publishers, not enthusiastic about digital editions to begin with, said readers would return to print as soon as they returned to their senses. Voices in the magazine industry, those who like to put trademarks next to their names, continue to push publishers to believe that the future is really the past, print is king and always will be. Conference after conference talked about why print would endure, and rarely (actually never) discussed the issues effecting the Newsstand and what publishers could do to build readership of their digital editions.

At least one digital publishing platform expressed frustration with publishers telling me at one event that the publishers they talk to simply will not consider doing anything different beyond producing replica editions and continuing to discount print subscriptions. That vendor eventually gave up on publishers altogether and shifted to selling digital publishing solutions to brands.

Meanwhile, each week another library system announces that they are replacing their print magazines with digital editions. Chippewa River District Library, in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, is but the latest – they are going with Zinio through a deal with RBdigital.

That means that while the emphasis at most publishing houses is to continue to move away from the digital edition as an important part of their circulation strategy, more and more readers will have access to digital editions through their library systems and through in-flight systems (another growing trend, especially in Europe).

One publisher asked me recently if I was still enthusiastic about digital editions and I said that my enthusiasm has waned, but I still see the promise in digital editions. What remains lacking, I said, was an effective way to encourage app downloads and in-app sales. Some efforts appear promising: Next Issue’s effort to “disaggregate” content from issues to get readers to taste magazine content, then get them to download the rest of the issue feels like a smart move, for instance. But unless Next Issue markets itself as aggressively as certain drug companies do I doubt many potential readers will notice their effort. App discovery remains a huge problem, one not being solved by “total audience growth.”

Hearst this weekend released app updates for many of its titles including Cosmopolitan, HGTV Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine and others. The update involves iOS 9 compatibility.

Looking through the iTunes reviews for many of the Hearst magazine apps that were updated I notice that O, The Oprah Magazine was one few titles that seemed to be maintaining their digital edition circulation, though it remains fairly low. With 80,783 in digital subscriptions, and 33,796 in digital single copy (almost all of it through Next Issue), the magazine has as much digital edition readership as it ever has had – one of the few titles that can claim that. One reason for this may be that readers have few complaints about the app and so have not been tempted to cancel their subscriptions when prompted by Apple. But we are still talking about small numbers here, less than 5 percent of total circulation, meaning few circulation directors would see these readers as indefensible to maintaining the magazine’s 2.35M rate base.

  • Mike 2 years ago

    I’ve been around longer than the computer revolution. I actually worked on Bourroughs computers while they still had tubes in them and punch cards for programming and data storage, so to say I’m an old geezer is apropos, but so say I’m a technophobe would be a misnomer and I have been involved in everything from the invention of Ethernet, the internet and every make of personal computer and operating system since going back to the 1960s. I can tell you now and then, digital publishing is a niche market and until someone overcomes three obstacles, it never has a chance of being anything but a niche market.

    The first is hardware. Tablets are a start and frankly I don’t see anything better in the observable future. The closest possibility is the paper thin screen that Samsung is developing. However, the fact remains, I can’t roll up a tablet, or device, and stick it in my pocket, leave it in a barber shop or throw it in my glove box. There is no portability, the equipment is too expensive and too fragile and, the most important point, access is time limited by batteries. When I most want a magazine is when electrical outlets aren’t available to me. I read in waiting rooms, restaurants, lavatories, airplanes, buses, etc. Magazines always work. Digital content is available for maybe an hour, possibly two (yes, I constantly read how tablets and batteries last for 8-10 hours, but they don’t and anybody who actually bought one knows they don’t. I still can’t get my phone and golf app through a complete round of golf without a backup battery charger.

    Then there’s the delivery format. There’s no standard. I have lost hundreds of magazines to Zinio who changed formats years ago and all my old magazines are now unreadable. They took my magazines away from me. Yet, I still have all my Mechanic’s Illustrated from the 1950’s. I have all my flying magazines from the 1960’s and all my golfing magazines from the 1970’s, not to mention Reader’s Digests that go back to my parents reading material. There is no storage standard, no delivery standard and no preservation of ownership (not to mention you can’t share your copy with friends, family, peers, etc. Also, ever try building something from an example on a kindle, nook, tablet, laptop or desktop? Try standing over an oily car engine, the rook of a partially built house gable or a boat in the water and see how well those fancy devices hold up.

    No matter how good the idea might seem, there’s no practical way to replace print media. On the other hand, I can’t remember the last time I read a user’s manual anywhere but online. So there’s definitely a place for it, but it’s not going to be big, permanent or largely accepted. It will always have an appeal to a very small and specific audience and will never be able to replace a hard copy document without almost 100% reinvention of how digital media is perceived, used, protected and preserved.

    • D.B. Hebbard 2 years ago

      I think many of your points are good, but I wouldn’t go too far with them.

      After all, the Internet requires an electrical device to use and that has not stopped it from become the dominant form of media today.

      But a very good point you make, one that needs to be repeated, is that one major weakness of digital editions is that publishers are at the mercy of the digital newsstands and digital publishing platforms they employ. A newsstand can shutdown, change its technology and more. Apple, as an example, gave up on the Newsstand, so why trust them with Apple News?

    • Andrew Burge 2 years ago

      Totally agree, magazines work! The printed package of well written, designed and curated content, why all the emphasis to digital? The wheel is turning as it should. “Print is dead – long live print”

  • Sean McKenna 2 years ago

    “discussed the issues effecting the Newsstand and what publishers could do to build readership of their digital editions.” This summarizes what is likely the largest problem related to the growth of digital editions. Digital newsstands are plagued with issues. This leads publishers to fend for themselves in the digital arena and they do not, in most cases, have the resources to do that. Digital editions can’t gain traction if nothing is done to acquire new readers…

  • Larry Genkin 2 years ago

    Great article, which points out 3 of the major flaws I see in publishers approach to digital today:

    Flaw #1: The Digital Replica Approach
    Readership of digital editions has dropped not because consumers don’t want to read content on their digital devices (quite the opposite as general web readership illustrates), but rather readers can’t stand needing to zoom, pinch and squint in order to read.

    Flaw #2: Relying on Apps
    With millions of apps all vying for attention in the app stores, the promise of new readers even finding your publication today has all but vanished. To increase readership, publishers need to rely on their own marketing. They should begin this by making their content easy to find and access through the browser, not a heavily concealed and protected app.

    Flaw #3: Relying on Aggregators
    Companies like Zinio and Next Issue are still using hard to read print replicas which, regardless of how big their marketing budget is, is still going to leave readers lukewarm about reading magazines in that format. They’ve been at it long enough to show that they are not a cureall to publishers circulation needs.

    If publishers continue to make their digital editions their “red headed step children” paying a fraction of the attention to them as they do to their print edition brethren, their going to continue to get the same lackluster results. USA Today is one publisher who “gets it” as you can see from this before and after video —