Magazines Need a Digital Format Before they Get a New Blueprint?

Tomorrow Apple and News Corp are launching a new periodical, The Daily, specifically designed for the iPad. This could be really exciting and I wish it well (I really do, but we will have some caveats later).

Erick Schonfeld over at TechCrunch decides to peg another think piece on iPad magazines on this event: iPad Mags Need a New Blueprint. This is not a blog up to the usual TechCrunch standards but it does attract an excellent comment (from TechPops – who tells us what he wants his digital magazine to be and do) and a thoughtful blog from Mike Cane. Who correctly points out that the Daily is really about newspapers and magazines are not facing the same challenges or the same opportunities with the iPad.

There are three problems with Schonfeld’s piece and they are all signs that he does not have a good understanding of the challenge the magazine industry faces:

  1. A digital magazine or newspaper should feel like a media app, not like a PDF viewer. It needs to take advantage of technology to tell better stories. (Schonfeld)
  2. Apple should fix the subscription problem(Schonfeld)
  3. Making these apps social and realtime is the key (Schonfeld)

The first point is a blatant appeal to the gallery. There have been some very poor early stage magazine apps of which the best that one could say of them is that they look like badly put-together PDF-viewing packages. But the reality is that the magazine industry basically knows how to make magazines which in their print form pretty much are PDF packages (or in practice InDesign files, which are not much different). This is where the magazine industry is starting from, and the iPad is actually an excellent way of reading magazines, documents designed primarily for a print medium. Producing a really good iPad app of the print magazine is a very good starting point for where the magazine industry now is. We should recognize that the magazine format is a PDF format until it becomes something else, and any digital magazine platform is going to build out from this heritage. Connected to this point: Schonfeld is right that media apps such as Flipboard are harbingers for the future digital magazine industry, but it is swinging cart before horse to suggest that most magazines are going to become Flipboard-style aggregators. We need thriving digital magazines for horizontal aggregation services like Flipboard to work. Making digital magazines work will mean making them feel like magazines on the iPad (though of course more digital and ‘better’), this doesnt mean making them all like Flipboard with its loose and generous visual style. Half the point of magazines is that they aim at individuality and unique presentation in design. That potential for design excellence and differentiation through design and layout has to be kept!

‘Fixing the Subscription Problem’, we will know more about Apple’s moves on subscriptions for periodicals tomorrow following the launch of the Daily, it is widely expected that Apple will makes some changes to its subscription model to encourage periodical publishers to focus on the iPad. But I very much doubt that ‘fixing the subscription model’ will come close to the demands that magazine publishers have been making. Apple may provide a bit more customer data to publishers, but it will be surprising if it relents on its 30% commission for sales made through iTunes. Magazine and newspaper publishers have some unrealistic expectations about ‘fixing the subscription problem’ in iTunes. The bald and unpalatable (for some publishers) truth is that the iTunes commercial and subscription model already works rather well, and unrestricted access to private consumer data is not on offer.

‘Making these apps social and realtime is the key.’ This is again, at best a half truth. We can agree with Schonfeld that digital magazines are going to be interesting players in the social web. But this role may be more asymmetric than other social content players. Magazines, newspapers and books need to think carefully about the extent to which they introduce on-board, two way dialogue. All holds-barred realtime interactivity is not a guarantee of success. We may be more interested in the potential for Tweeting from magazines than in having magazines Tweet at us (see Cane). In any event the social wave for digital iPad magazines is clearly coming, but it may be that the way this should work is not yet fully in view. Its a bit tough to complain that digital magazines havent figured out their social graph via the iPad when Facebook still has not yet produced its own iPad app. If the Daily goes all social at launch (I doubt that it will) the chances are that it will have gone off at half-cock.

I look forward to buying the Daily tomorrow (it will be a shame if it is restricted to North America, surely it will be available internationally?), and I shall be rooting for it. Its best hope is that it does not disappoint and learns to adapt quickly if it has made a couple of bad early choices. The Daily needs to innovate and the chances are that it will make one or two mistakes, and having such a big budget behind it, it may be hard to recover from a mis-step Here are four tricky judgement calls that I shall be looking out for:

  1. How does it handle RSS feeds? It is called The Daily — which suggests that it will have an editorial focus around a ‘deadline’. So in the week of the Cairo events it will be bang up against Twitter, Flickr and Reuters on the issue of periodicity and topicality. Its hard to get the RSS mix right if the editorial focus in on a daily edition.
  2. How will The Daily be positioned in relation to subtly different tablet options that are coming from Android and HP. Has the publication been so tightly designed for the iPad that it will be an exclusive project for that platform? What about the iPhone, will there in due course be an iPhone edition? (I would love to know what advice Apple gave News Corp on this point).
  3. Will The Daily be aiming for a significant advertising revenue base or is it going to pitch its camp solidly on the basis of subscription revenues?
  4. How will The Daily handle the orientation possibilities of the iPad? Are we going to see a design innovation in that area?
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