Are digital editions already dead?

I recently heard a publishing CEO say that high costs and low returns meant that digital is “not working”and they would therefore not be rolling out digital editions of any more titles. In which case I can’t help wondering what the new strategy is: managed decline? You might be able to hide the rot for a while by going into new markets like China, but that’s not much better than putting your fingers in your ears and going “la la la”.
As last month’s ABC audit figures confirmed, the decline in print circulation continues unabated. What’s going on is a fundamental structural shift in media consumption. It’s not going to stop.
This revolution isn’t really about “digital”- it’s about mobile. People love their smartphones, and they spend an extraordinary proportion of their day glued to them, with the happy outcome that content consumption has skyrocketed.
You’d think magazine publishers would be super excited about this expansion in demand. So why is there a perception that it’s not working? Why have consumers and advertisers not been flocking to publishers’ mobile offerings?
Bluntly, mobile “hasn’t worked”for the simple reason publishers haven’t actually tried it yet. They haven’t created true mobile products. Instead, they’ve taken their print editions and squeezed them into apps, mostly as replica PDFs that are barely even readable on a phone.
Even where they’ve gone to the bother of converting to a mobile-friendly layout, they’ve stuck with the print delivery cycle. If you open up a magazine app the very first thing you will see is a list of back issues. Open it up again tomorrow, and you’ll see exactly the same thing.
But if you look across the landscape of successful apps, you’ll notice very few of them are simply replicating a non-mobile experience. Certainly not games, where the top sellers are entirely different from the kinds of games that dominate console charts. The same is true of productivity apps, or photo editing apps, or any other category for that matter.
What people like about mobile apps is their simplicity and focus. Initially this was a result of app designers trying to cope with limited screen real estate and the lack of an accurate pointing device (fingers being much fatter than mouse cursors). But it has turned out to be a huge boon, forcing the pace on user centred design. Great apps are commonly single purpose, with highly focused user flows. You can drop out of them and pick them up again, and even a very short engagement is rewarding.

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