January 15, 2016 Last Updated 8:37 am

Rolling Stone gives up on its native digital edition, updates app to one powered by Zinio

Readers who update their iOS apps today will find all their native digital edition issues gone, replaced with PDF replicas, as the publisher who never believed in digital to begin with, ends his experiment with the platform

The publisher of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, was not enthusiastic about digital editions, or digital, in general. “It’s the same pretty much as I’ve said about the web. The tablet itself is a really fun device. Some people are going to enjoy it a lot and use it. Some people aren’t,” Wenner told AdAge in 2011.

RS-jan16-cover-300At the time people wondered if Wenner actually had read any magazines on an iPad, saying that he found them hard to read, indicative of replica editions, not native digital editions.

“So I think that they’re prematurely rushing and showing little confidence and faith in what they’ve really got, their real asset, which is the magazine itself, which is still a great commodity. It’s a small additive; it’s not the new business.”

But Rolling Stone eventually launched a digital edition app one early 2013, one that was native, and easy to read. But like many magazine publishes, the results didn’t really come in for the magazine. At that time, many publishers were first reporting their digital edition circulation, and the results were encouraging. Wired magazine, for instance, had hit the 10 percent digital level. Surely it would only be a matter of time before half of a magazine’s total circulation would be digital, right?

But behind the scenes Apple had already determined the fate of the Newsstand, its place for all magazine and newspaper apps. The company, along with a few major publishers, had seen that readers would not stick, thanks to the way Apple ran the Newsstand, sending out monthly reminders that their subscriptions (if they had chosen the monthly option) would renew. This was an invitation to cancel. Also, the Newsstand folder itself only hid apps away, many readers never really got the idea that if they downloaded a magazine app it would not show up on their home page screen but would automatically go into the Newsstand folder.

By mid-2013 Apple stopped maintaining the Newsstand categories, and for several months at the end of that year, the subcategory mechanism was completely broken, but Apple didn’t seem to really care (See this story from December 2013, where TNM complains about the condition of the Newsstand.)

Sales of digital editions in the Newsstand slowed, with many of the pioneers of digital editions actually beginning to see their total sales decline. Wired magazine, for instance, reports that it only has 61K in digital subscriptions with its last publisher’s statement, having lost around 40 percent of digital readers. It picked up some new ones thanks to single copy digital sales, reported through Next Issue Media, but total digital edition readers are still over 20 percent below what they were a couple of years ago.

Rolling Stone, which was late to the party, and not a big believer in digital editions in any case, never got the big boost some of the early adopters did. It soon added the Digital Issue category to its publisher’s statements, but right now can only report around 30,000 digital subscribers, and around the same number of digital single copy readers (29,693 attributable to Next Issue, 635 from the Readly service).

Readers, who were initially happy with Rolling Stone’s digital edition app (iOS), were shocked and disappointed to see that in early December the native digital edition was transformed into a PDF replica.


“Why oh why did the magazine do this?” one reviewer said in iTunes. “I can no longer read it so will have to cancel. If they were losing money I would have preferred an increase in price vs something I can no longer read.”

That review is not alone. In fact, every review written since early December has been a 1-star review, everyone complaining about the move to a PDF replica.

But it is unlikely the publisher, or even those involved in digital at the company will listen. Reviews written prior to the move to a replica were also negative, with readers complaining about having to pay for digital subscriptions even when they were a print subscriber. Readers who were print subscribers felt abused by the publisher and would not sign up. Like many major magazines publishers, famously led by Hearst, they were going to force readers to make a choice: print or digital.

One reason Rolling Stone likely chose the end of last year to go to a replica edition may be that it has decided to abandon in-house digital production. Today, the magazine issued an update their app, one that will make loyal readers even angrier at the publisher.

The new app is powered by Zinio, the digital newsstand company that once moved into creating apps for their clients, but stopped when most publishers realized that they would be forced into having PDF replica if they went with Zinio.

But if you want to avoid spending any money on production for your digital editions, you’ll have to go with a PDF replica, so Wenner has apparently decided to do this.

The consequences go far beyond just the newest issues of the magazine. When iPad and iPhone readers see the update come through today they will be greeted with a rosy message: Brand new user interface! The old app had not been updated since January of 2015 and had been functioning fine, so many may wonder about the changes, Rolling Stone does not mention that they have gone from a native digital edition to a replica, only that there are “general improvements.”

One the reader updates their app, they lose all their old issues, and if they chose to download the old issues again they will find that they are PDF replicas, not at the easy-to-read digital issued they once praised.

Since Rolling Stone was using the Adobe DPS to build its digital editions, it could also have these appear inside the Next Issue Media newsstand, as well (now called Texture). But since they have abandoned the Adobe solution they are now forced to offer readers a PDF replica of its newest issue (the older issues inside Texture remain hybrid editions – the ads as seen in print, but the editorial reformatted for digital devices).

RS-sub-pricingLike Meredith’s move to make the popular Martha Stewart Living digital edition a replica, one can assume that the rationale for this is that digital edition sales have been disappointing, or simply that it is a matter of cost saving. Those who remain advocates of digital editions, such as designers and digital-only publishers, have long felt that legacy publishers were unenthusiastic about digital, no matter what they may say at industry conferences – their actions have never backed up their rhetoric.

In fact, the industry has never admitted that it continues to subsidize print by offering heavily discounted subscription rates for print magazines at prices far below cost, while forcing digital readers to pay prices that cover the cost of digital production. Rolling Stone, for instance, is offering a two year subscription for less than $20 PLUS they will throw in 4 free issues. The one year digital subscription is $19.99. Are you telling me that it is cheaper to print and mail a printed magazine than it is to produce a digital edition?

For Jann Wenner, and many of the major magazine publishers, the failure of digital editions is not a disappointment, but a sign that they were right along. Digital publishing is something for the future, far future. Asked how long before digital magazines might become the norm, Wenner was clear.

“Not months. Decades, probably. People’s habits will shift, they’ll make improvements in the delivery system, the screen will change, it will get lighter, whatever, and new people growing up will find that as a habit. But you’re talking about a generation at least, maybe two generations, before the shift is decisive.”

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