Ed Needham who was editor of FHM in its glory years — the late 1990’s when its circulation crested over 750,000 — has given a rather depressing interview for the Press Gazette on his gloomy fears for the magazine industry:

Perhaps sensitive to the difficulties that some of his former magazines now find themselves in, Needham is reluctant to discuss any individual titles, telling Press Gazette: “Idon’t really have an opinion to be honest.”

But moments later he adds: “It’s clear that the entire publishing industry has got its work cut out trying to plot a confident road ahead.”

(further on)………….

To publishers pinning their hopes of tablet devices being the saviour of the industry, Needham urges caution.

“It may be but it’s yet to demonstrate that that’s the case. I can understand why people are putting their faith in it, but I think it’s a long way from being demonstrated to anyone’s satisfaction that that’s how it’s going to work.”  Press Gazette — Interview with Ed Needham

We can understand how an editor who has had an amazing switchback success with FHM and Maxim may feel that the digital path for magazines is now too difficult, and too uncertain for him to want to be fully engaged. But Ed’s scepticism is excessive and his gloom is emotional rather than rational. Here are three things to consider:

  1. Apple has shown that digital magazines work for tablet users with their iTunes Newsstand. Sales are promising and renewals are definitely encouraging. Subscription revenues through the iTunes Newsstand are growing at a promising rate. Apple know this. Amazon and Google also know this. Why do you think Amazon and Google are so keen to launch their own tablets? Why do you think they give ample shelf room to their (currently ‘very small’) magazine offerings when they launch their new tablets? These big companies know that magazines are working on tablets.
  2. Digital magazines on tablets are still very new. They are still barely at the toddler stage, three years old. But notice that like all toddlers they are growing up at a remarkable rate. Some of the biggest and best magazine brands still have terrible  apps and hopelessly misguided publishing policies, but this means that there is plenty of scope for improvement and the best apps are now getting it right! And they are working on platforms that are improving dramatically year by year. We know that apps for iOS and other tablet varieties will be much better in two years time than they can be now. Think bandwidth, resolution, size, memory. All these enablers are improving by leaps and bounds. Does anybody think that ink on paper magazines will see similar technology leaps in the next two years?
  3. Publishers have figured out how to make magazine pages, designs and layouts look really fabulous on the iPad. They are gradually working out how the digital magazine experience can be even more seductive and more compelling. In the next year or so we will see some very interesting developments with magazines and the social graph (think Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard etc). But think also about magazine communities and the extraordinary advantages that magazine publishers have (in contrast to consumer book publishers) in not only knowing who their audience is (name and reader number), but also knowing how to reach them directly and intimately through the fact that magazines are periodical  and are sold on subscription. No other consumer-facing product has this certain secure and regular contact with its audience. The community nature of special interest magazines give their publishers considerable digital scope. No more than Ed Needham do we know how this will pan out. But it is already working well for magazines that have taken the plunge with their digital offerings.

In short there are at least three reasons for digital optimism about magazines. First, digital magazines as apps are already working commercially. Second, there is every likelihood that the platforms will get much better in the next few years. Third, the community and social aspect of the digital magazine has yet to be explored or developed.