Why Magazines Are Using Digital To Boost Prices, Not Bolster Innovation

Well, this is disappointing.

As magazines make the transition from print to pixels, some publishers are using the move as an opportunity to jack up their prices - in some cases, to more than they were charging for print editions. And that's for tablet versions that are too often crappy afterthoughts. 

To be fair, magazines are contending with legitimate financial concerns. Their advertising revenue has been declining and the historically discounted subscription rates they've charged for print delivery just aren't enough to pay the freight. To cope, many publishers are asking readers to chip in more - on digital versions as well as print editions.

There are some problems with driving up prices too much, though.

For one, everyone knows it's cheaper to distribute content digitally than to print it and mail it. Asking buyers to pay more for something that costs you less to deliver is the kind of tactic that makes many subscribers feel exploited. It's a head-scratcher, if not a subscription-canceler. Sure, magazine makers may still be coping with meaty legacy cost structures. But that's not our problem, is it?  

Readers Have Way More Choices

There's also much more competition. Long gone are the days when magazines competed only with each other. Today, the entire Internet churns out content at a volume too great for any one human to keep up with - and it's all instantly available at any time. 

In addition to traditional magazines gone tablet, there are the digital-only magazines, sitting right there on the skeuomorphic newsstand shelf. For every frustrated TIME subscriber, there's a free download of the Huffington magazine, not to mention personalized, social-fueled digital "magazines" from Flipboard, AOL Editions, Google Currents, Zite and an ever-growing list of others. If Wired jacks up its prices, there's always digital mags from The Next Web and Engadet, not to mention the huge selection of tech coverage available through news aggregator apps and feed readers. 

How Publishers Have Fared With Tablets

Not everyone in the publishing industry is enamored with the idea of publishing native tablet apps for readers to flip through. MIT Technology Review editor Jason Pontin vowed to kill his magazine's native apps, citing high costs, technical challenges and the walled-off, un-Web-like nature of apps. The Financial Times famously pulled its iOS apps in favor of the HTML5 approach and isreportedly seeing more traffic and revenue since making the switch. Indeed, research has suggested that most readers prefer Web apps to native, platform-specific publications.

Still, some magazines have done pretty well with their digital editions, especially when they bundle them with print. In the United States, tablet publications are the second highest-grossing category of apps on iOS, according to an independent audit. Time and Conde Nast are selling the most digital mags, with news and women's interest magazines dominating those sales. 

Half of Wired's revenue now comes from digital, which is a rare but promising milestone for a legacy publisher. I still subscribe to Wired in print, and I appreciate the fact that the iPad edition comes at no extra charge. I also happily pay for Marco Arment's experimental publication The Magazine, because it consistently publishes content I enjoy in relatively small doses, rather than flooding me with irrelevant features and full-page ads.

"The Magazine was profitable from day one," says Arment. "As subscribers increased past break-even, I've been able to reinvest the additional income into more articles, higher author payments, original illustrations, photos and a professional editor."

While Arment won't disclose hard numbers, he says he's satisfied with what he calls The Magazine's "fantastic success." By utilizing what publishing expert Craig Mod calls "compact publishing" and monetizing it fairly, Arment has managed to build a profitable, if small media business in an age when industry trend lines have the stubborn tendency to slide downward.

There's clearly a limit to how much people will pay for magazine-style content. And it's not at all clear that number is rising instead of falling. Folks who want to remain in the publishing business need to figure out a hybrid model that works, and not just jack up their prices to make up for shrinking subscriber rolls. 

Digital Magazines Suck

The business model isn't the only issue here. Just as important is the consensus that most digital magazines just aren't very good. In far too many cases, subscribing to a magazine on your tablet means downloading a bloated, glorified PDF that hardly delivers the potentially magical experience the form factor allows. Even some of the digital-only magazines from online publishers mimic print page-for-page in disappointing pinch-to-zoom layouts.  

There are some promising alternatives. Wired's iPad app is pretty print-centric but at least the editors go to  the trouble of adding multimedia bells and whistles.  The Magazine takes an attractive minimalistic approach - both in terms of publication design and pricing.

Traditional publishers may want to look to The Magazine for inspiration, as well as to social news aggregators like Flipboard and Zite, which have managed to produce truly addictive reading environments worthy of a slot in one's home screen dock. Rethinking magazines for tablets will require publishers to get completely out of the print mindset. That means different layouts, lighter file sizes, deeper social integrations and yes, occasionally pointing readers toward content published by others. 

On the whole, digital magazines have a long way to go. When they get there, those of us who are most hungry for the news, analysis and entertainment they provide will happily pay up. Hopefully, there will be enough of us to make the best digital magazines into viable businesses.