Are tablet magazines dead or alive?

Barely 42 months after the birth of the iPad, critics proclaimed the death of the tablet magazine. That was fast. 

Depending upon whom you believe, it’s true and the tablet magazine had one of the shortest product lifespans in publishing history (abetted by more than a modicum of incompetence on the part of tablet magazine editors), or the critics are a bunch of spotlight-seeking naysayers who simply don’t understand the product development process. 

There’s evidence for both schools of thought. 

First the naysayers. 

“The app-based tablet approach to magazines leads straight to oblivion,” wrote Jon Lund, the COO of knowledge-sharing startup memit and chairman of the Danish Online News Association. 

Writing under the headline “Why tablet magazines are a failure” on last October, Lund proclaimed to love his tablet magazines, but only on the rare occasions when he remembers to open the apps. And therein lies one of the tablet magazine’s biggest problems. 

“My dedicated magazine apps… have been lost among the many other apps on my iPad,” Lund wrote. “I never read them, even those I pay monthly subscription fees for.” 

Lund cited Nielsen estimates that the average mobile user has 41 apps on his or her smartphone. “In April 2013, a Flurry study showed the average smartphone user opens only eight apps a day, with the most popular being Facebook, YouTube and game apps,” Lund wrote. “And, according to a 2012 report from Localytics, 22 per cent of all apps are only opened once.” 

The takeaway? There’s not much room for magazine apps. Magazine apps need extremely dedicated readers to avoid being buried. 

Secondly, with apps being the latest “walled gardens,” matters are made worse for tablet magazines because the apps themselves are invisible in the large streams of information governing the web, Lund argued. Apps basically work against everything we know about the power of the Internet: the ability to be found by countless numbers of readers searching for information about topics in your niche. “When a magazine is organised as an app rather than as a website, its articles can neither be indexed nor searched on the web,” wrote Lund. “And even if they could, clicking the link in Google at best takes readers to an app store, not to the article itself — cutting the magazine out of the greatest traffic driver in today’s world.” 

Ditto social media. “When you can’t link directly to an article, the urge to tweet or tell your friends about it drastically shrinks,” wrote Lund. “And curators like Flipboard and Zite can’t look into, link or grab content from within magazine apps.” 

Lund concludes by saying that if you don’t believe him, look at the numbers. The 25 best selling digital replica  editions account for an average of just 12 percent of total subscriptions of the magazines. 

Here are examples of major magazines’ tablet editions share of total paid subscriptions:

Maxim (11 per cent)

Cosmopolitan (8 per cent)

Men’s Health (6 per cent)

Vanity Fair (6 per cent)

ESPN the Magazine (5 per cent)

Food Network Magazine (5 per cent)

National Geographic (4 per cent)

Martha Stewart Living (4 per cent)

People (2 per cent)

Another critic shares Lund’s doubts, but offers an alternative. 

“For most publishers, a fully bespoke tablet and smartphone app… is a bridge too far, both conceptually and economically,” wrote Eddie Vassallo, CEO of app development company Entropy, in his company’s blog. “And while a fully native, personalised experience (à la Zite or Flipboard) is no doubt the best option, HTML5 magazines can be an enticing second tier choice. With iPad Web usage shooting through the roof, HTML5-powered magazines and tailored tablet web experiences may well be the new ‘cheap and cheerful’ option for publishers. 

“The ‘halfway house’ duo of InDesign and PDF solutions is simply not working — and that cold fact has been staring us all in the face for far too long,” Vassallo wrote. “[Either] fully native or enhanced Web-based HTML5. It’s time to DO something. Now. 

“Tablet magazines as we know them are dead,” Vassallo concluded. “Long live the new tablet magazine.” 

Not so fast, say tablet magazine enthusiasts. 

“It reminds me of early predictions that the internet would never catch on, no one would need a home computer, and the iPhone would never have significant market share,” Mag+ CEO Gregg Hano wrote in Publishing Executive last October. 

“Three years is not enough time for the publishing industry to test, evaluate and iterate upon what audiences want from this new and complex mobile media or to determine what ideal and individual user experiences should be,” Hano wrote. “It is also not a lot of time to learn how to monetise this new platform.” 

Tablet magazine enthusiasts have their own data to support their case. Consumer magazine publishers distributed 10.2 million digital replica editions in the first six months of 2013, nearly doubling the 2012 total for the same period, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.  

Adobe announced in December 2013 that:

  • More than 150 million digital publications built with its Digital Publishing Suite (DPS) had been downloaded since DPS’ launch in2011;
  • DPS-built magazine edition downloads had shot up 115 per cent over 2012;
  • DPS-built apps have tripled unique monthly readers over 2012.

McPheters & Company’s iMonitor database now tracks nearly 11,000 magazine and news apps.

“These are very strong indicators that the magazine audience is starting to move onto the digital platform in a very real way,” Bridget Roman, senior product marketing manager for Digital Publishing Suite, told eMedia Vitals in December.

Some magazine publishers used 2013 to update their traditional tablet magazine model by adding interactive features and creating the ability to share items via social media and the web. 

The Forbes’ iPad edition, launched in January 2013, features a “clip and share” function that allows readers to share photos, images, headlines, etc. using email or social media. 

Other magazines decided to try to keep readers coming back more frequently than once a week or once a month. New York magazine enhances its weekly content with a daily offering of curated news from and the company’s other publications including Vulture and Daily Intelligencer. 

Similarly, in June, The Atlantic launched The Atlantic Weekly, a paid app featuring a curated selection of articles previously published in The Atlantic Group’s digital properties, along with a piece from the The Atlantic’s 155 year old archives. The first was a piece by famous American author Henry David Thoreau. 

Others, including Bullett Media, experimented with new tablet monetisation methods including direct downloads (single-copy or subscription sales), display advertising, advertorials, shoppable content, and interactive ad development services.

Tablet magazine enthusiasts have a powerful player in their corner: Google chairman Eric Schmidt. 

“Tablets are now more popular than PCs,” Schmidt told Wired editor Scott Dadich. “You can read it, it knows where you are, it has an accelerometer. There are all sorts of stuff [publishers] can do in tablet magazines [that they] couldn’t do in print magazines.” 

Schmidt said that he could envision “powerful, tablet-looking things” replacing “traditional media” by 2018. “Incredibly immersive” tablet apps will gather the reader’s location data, merge it with the reader’s social media history, and make the tablet experience interactive, Schmidt said.  

Other than the debate over native advertising, there isn’t a more heated, more controversial, more consequential fight than the future of tablet magazines. 

Stay tuned.

Source: Innovations in Magazine Media 2014 World Report 

Innovations in Magazine Media World Report includes this and other great case studies from the top publishing houses around the world. The fifth edition of Innovations features five of the major changes exploding on the magazine media front: mobile as the dominant platform, programmatic advertising, video, big data, and native advertising. Order now.

Subscribe to monthly FIPP Insight newsletter.

For further information, including translation rights and bulk rates, contact Sylkia J. Cartagena or Helen Bland.

Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x