December 4, 2012

The Daily And Tablet Magazines

Rupert Murdoch shuttered The Daily yesterday, the iPad only newspaper with a staff of a 100 or something like that. Quite an operation, quite a project, and quite a project propelled by the dreams of an old media publisher and their hopes of doing the same old thing on a new media format such as an iPad. No wonder it failed, right?

The iPad magazine business, if we can call it that, is in an interesting spot right now. To understand this, it is important to remember where it all started, with bloated versions of paper magazines, more or less behaving like an interactive PDF really. Not only did the format, with its “tap to view video” and similar, not engage readers as much as magazine makers might’ve thought, it also meant huge file sizes for every issue. The weight issue has been handled somewhat, but magazines clock in at over 150 MB more often than not.

The typography design trend online is, I think, in part responsible to the obvious retort to the visual magazines. As a response to these bulky monstrosities we’ve gotten a few iPad (and iPhone) magazines that rely on text rather than fancy layout. Marco Arment’s The Magazine is a good example (and an interesting project), and also what seems to be leading the way. The Awl recently launched a weekend repack of its content in a similar fashion, called The Awl Weekend Companion. Both these publications have in common that they feature longer (albeit not necessarily long) articles and offer them in a very simple, text first, manner. It is, in fact, not at all unlike quite a few blogs and personal sites that feature this sort of writing.

Now, The Magazine won’t overtake a magazine such as Wired in subscribers. Going next to text only isn’t the solution in any way, it is rather a reaction to the current magazine landscape, and something that can work perfectly well if you’ve got the right audience. Marco Arment certainly has that with The Magazine, he’s got his following and his friends that can help out and create a great product. Hat’s off to him, I’m a happy subscriber myself. All publishers won’t be so lucky though, and that will be painfully clear next year, when Newsstand will be full of hopeful bloggers and columnists that want to give this type of thing a go.

The allure of actually being able to charge for content, something that is really hard online, is strong as it is. Add the notion of not actually having to work all that hard on the layout of the magazine, now that’s tempting! Sure, there’s a lot of work creating the basic design of the app, and then the actual magazine of course, but compared to toiling away in InDesign with every issue of a glossy magazine, it just isn’t that much of an investment. I know, I’ve done both.

So bloggers and columnists will launch their The Magazine clones. They’ll charge you $0.99 per issue, and/or offer a subscription, and hope that this is the solution. This is the way to make money out of all those hits on their respective websites.

They will fail. Over and over again, they’ll fail, and then they’ll scream that publishing is dead and that there is no market or whatever.

Some however, will succeed. Like Marco Arment, again, because he is not only among the first to the field, he is also making sure that The Magazine is a quality product. Something people want to pay for, which is a factor that seem to get lost among all the other things at times. That was the main problem of The Daily after all, it launched doing a lot of things right, but the product was weak. How do you get the masses to pay for news coverage that is no less than exceptional today, when the web is there for free?

That question was rhetorical.

The Daily did manage to pull this off to a degree, but not to cover their costs. The problem is, a staff of 100 people just won’t do anymore, not if you’re starting something as new as this. I’m sure they had great ideas in the pipeline, I’m sure they are innovators in their own field, and I’m sure they’re all really nice. But The Daily is less of an innovation than The Magazine is, despite the fact that The Magazine is (seemingly) a number of HTML files packaged in an app.

And that’s fine. That’s even a good thing, because it reminds us all that content is still king.

It is painfully obvious that publishers haven’t figured out the tablet yet. Not only are most websites failing to take the tablet into consideration, with puny click areas and unoptimized advertisements and whatnot, but the publications published for tablets are sorely lacking too. The sooner the publishers can get into their heads that an iPad is not a bunch of digital sheets of paper but something completely different, the better for all of us. But most of all for the publishers, because that might mean that they can make more money, and thus perhaps even survive.

Not that it is my problem. I’d rather create the next The Magazine and confuse the hell out of people as to what actually passes for a viable, nay profitable, content product these days.

Finally, the big thing to take away from The Daily closing down: It really did quite well. The Daily reported over 100,000 paying subscribers, that’s quite a lot. These people have been paying either $4 per month, or $40 per year. That’s at least $4 million a year right there. Apple takes 30% of that, but we still end up at around $3 million, and we haven’t even talked about what they made out of advertisements.

$3 million a year and 100,000 subscribers. Now what if someone who had some sort of grasp of reality got into that position?

Food for thought.

Thoughts? Let @tdh know on Twitter, or find me elsewhere.