John Battelle has a really good blog on the future of magazines.

He summarises some of the difficulties which original content sites on the traditional web are facing:

Nearly all web publications are driven by the display model, which is in turn driven by page views. But we all know the web is shifting, thanks to mobile devices and the walled gardens they erect. The new landscape of the web is far more complicated, and new products must emerge. Musings on “Streams” and the Future of Magazines

Although the environment is tough for magazines that want to make a new digital thing, this in fact means that its a great time to do it. If you can figure out how to do the difficult thing well this is the moment for a content-oriented digital publisher to get going. There are enough encouraging signals out there to suggest that it should be do-able:

As we all know, the industry has historically punted on getting anyone to pay for content on the Internet, but that’s changing – people pay for Netflix, the Wall St. Journal, Spotify, various apps, etc. I think folks will pay for quality content if it’s truly valuable, so let’s pretend for the purposes of this example that your new publication plans to be in the “valuable” category.

If you want to sell your publication on the Big Guys’ platforms, you have to play by their rules, which means you turn over 30% of your circulation revenues. That’s a hefty chunk of revenue to lose before you even begin to pay for other costs! You can keep all the revenues from folks who buy your publication on the web,  but if they want to enjoy it on their iPad or Kindle via a native application, well, you have to deal with Apple and Amazon. Google’s Play store takes a smaller cut, but it takes a cut nonetheless. Musings on “Streams” and the Future of Magazines

So the enterprising digital magazine needs to create great content that large enough communities will pay for, and that the publisher can then sell across all platforms. He then goes on to consider the complications and the cost of managing content across all the different device platforms. and formats, that are emerging, and the comparable cost and complexity of tracking/measuring audience statistics across similarly diverse and incompatible environments. And he concludes:

….. cheer up. Because I really do believe these issues will be solved. So far, we’ve written off magazines as dying, because we can’t figure out how to replicate their core value proposition in the digital world. But I’ve got a strong sense this is changing. Crazy publishing entrepreneurs, and even the big players in media, will sooner rather than later drive solutions that resolve our current dilemma. We’ll develop ads that travel with content, content management systems that allow us to automatically and natively drive our creations into the big platforms, and sensible business rules with the Big Guys that allow independent, groundbreaking publications to flourish again. Musings on “Streams” and the Future of Magazines

We are seeing some of these trends growing at Exact Editions. Customers are buying subscriptions (and at much higher prices than they will buy ‘normal’ apps). Customers are renewing their subscriptions at promising ratios (comparable to print circulation stats) and audiences are steadily growing — especially on iOS devices, but also from direct sales to web users who may be deploying an extraordinary variety of devices for consumption.

The challenge here, as Battelle understands, is to make the magazine experience so robust, so compelling, so design-rich, that the users are ‘in’ the magazine as much, or even more than, they are ‘on’ the Kindle, or ‘with’ the iPad, or peeking ‘at’ the iPhone. The challenge is to make the digital magazine experience the focus of the reader’s pleasure and her experience. Not an easy task, but increasingly do-able.

I suspect that Apple’s iTunes will remain the most important market for digital magazines in the next year or two. But there are clearly going to be some competitor platforms, and they will help to make the market more interesting and more innovative. There are plenty of opportunities for clever and entrepreneurial publishers to make these markets work in ways that please consumers and drive the bottom line.