Digital First or Digital Magazine Apps that Work?

Jason Pontin, the editor of MIT’s excellent Technology Review has written an instructive mea culpa on why his app strategy for that magazine has not worked: Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps.

The article and the comments it attracts are deeply instructive and we have to admire Pontin’s guts in admitting that he got so much wrong, and made so many mistakes:

We launched the platforms in January of 2011. Complimenting myself on my conservatism, I budgeted less than $125,000 in revenue in the first year. That meant fewer than 5,000 subscriptions and a handful of single-issue sales. Easy, I thought. What could go wrong?

Like almost all publishers, I was badly disappointed. What went wrong? Everything.

But as we admire Pontin’s direct honesty, we should at the same time question whether he has drawn the right lessons from his experience.

Some of his strongest complaints are directed at Apple for their  “30 percent vigorish on all single-copy sales through its iTunes store.” A levy that applies also to all subscriptions sold through iTunes. This is a familiar but pointless complaint. Apple is a commercial entity and if publishers wish to use iTunes they need to accept the terms which it provides. The simple fact is that Apple has 200 million credit cards channeled through iTunes and no publisher can ignore the simplicity and ease with which this enormous market can buy magazine subscriptions. Pontin also half-heartedly recognises that Apple has always allowed magazines to sell digital subscriptions direct, and to provide access to iTunes apps without charge. A move which is frankly quite generous on Apple’s part. He notes this and then complains that “the mechanism for this could not match iTunes ease of use”. So whose fault would that be? At Exact Editions we have found that enabling print subscribers to freely use branded iTunes apps for the magazines to which they subscribe is a highly successful strategy. Apple puts now obstacles in the way of publishers who want to do this.

In Pontin’s analysis one of the key failings of most publisher apps is that they have failed to deliver the link-ability and connectedness that we expect from digital editions.

The real problem with apps ……. (is)… stories in apps didn’t really link. The apps were, in the jargon of information technology, “walled gardens,” and although sometimes beautiful, they were small and stifling. For readers, none of the novelty or prettiness of apps overcame the weirdness and frustration of reading digital media closed off from other digital media.

This is a problem with many publisher-developed apps, and its not easy to retrofit a solution to do this well if the linkage architecture was not built-in from the get go. Providing a general and thoroughly automated process for enhancing linkage is one of the foundational elements of the Exact Editions content management solution. Publishers who build their own app platforms rarely consider this, and they never consider the importance of providing a coherent and searchable framework through which a subscriber can get immediate access to previous issues and stories. Each single issue within each app is presented and treated as though it were a ‘walled garden’ and in most cases apps branded for a particular publication at best allow you to search a single issue. Pontin is right that this is a major problem, but its one that a competent app development platform should solve.

Pontin is also surprisingly honest about the failures of their own development efforts at Technology Review:

We sold 353 subscriptions through the iPad. We never discovered how to avoid the necessity of designing both landscape and portrait versions of the magazine for the app. We wasted $124,000 on outsourced software development, a sum that does not begin to capture our allocation of internal resources. We fought among ourselves, and people left the company. There was untold expense of spirit. I hated every moment of our experiment with apps, because it tried to impose something closed, old, and print-like on something open, new, and digital.

James Brocklehurst has a decisive put-down in the comments section of Gigaom where Pontin’s blog was discussed:

So the point is, to dismiss app publications as ‘unworkable’ seems a little premature, particularly if this statement is based on poorly executed examples. Publishers should try employing experienced app developers and designers and properly evaluating the results before giving up. James Brocklehurst

The real question now is whether Justin Pontin’s decision to move to a digital first strategy will really work for the Technology Review. He defines “digital first” as meaning for them:

henceforth people will be able to read everything we publish free of charge on the Web, and we’ll publish nothing first in print. Some stories we’ll post online first, and then in our magazines. Other stories we’ll publish simultaneously in various media. The website will be the complete repository of everything we publish. For us, print will be just another platform (to use the jargon of software development), and by no means the most important. Technology Review Goes Digital First

Although Pontin cites the Financial Times as a model, and appears to endorse the approach they have taken with that paper, his commitment to publishing everything free of charge on the Web, and nothing first in digital, sounds much more like the strategy of the Guardian than of the FT or the WSJ. I will be surprised if the advertising dollars are there to support such a strategy for Technology Review.