An old boss of mine said he didn’t regret launching magazines that didn’t work but he did regret not closing them sooner. He’d applaud Future’s decision to close its iPad magazine tech. after just seven months. He’d also sagely note this as further proof that content doesn’t migrate meekly from one platform to the next.
The figures about magazines on the iPad that are bandied about, generally involving a big percentage rise on an unspecified base, are bandied by people who want to sell you something. If you want to know the truth go to the people who’ve done it, picked the arrows out of their backs and signed the cheques.
A year ago I took part in a debate about magazines on tablet at the London College of Communications. All the panellists had enough experience of either translating paper magazines into this new format or trying something wholly new to have no stars in their eyes about how demanding it was in terms of magazine craft and how hard it was to find and win new readers on Apple’s News Stand, where nobody can hear you scream. Of the four other participants, two have seen their titles close in the year since, one is being produced in a manner so shoestring as to amaze even the shoestring industry and the other is the Week, of which more later.
All found that an expensively acquired tablet shell proved to be the beginning of new problems rather than the solution to old ones. Simply reproducing your magazine via a cheap page-turner app is unsatisfactory for the editorial team and not very thrilling for advertisers, but it may prove good enough for the small percentage of readers who take you up on the offer. On the other hand, those memory-devouring, all bells and whistles apps try so hard to burst the constraints of the magazine format that you wonder why they aren’t websites.
Every magazine company’s experience is different. Some are guardedly optimistic, others have decided it’s not for them and the rest claim their masters have set their faces against it. But I have yet to meet one experienced person who’s setting up a small office of journalists with a view to taking advantage of the theoretical savings you ought to be able to make by publishing without need for trees, ink, trucks or WH Smith. That particular revolution has been postponed.
When we closed the Word last year we looked closely into the possibility of keeping it going as an iPad-only title and it simply didn’t begin to make sense. The cost of your journalism is just as high but the amount you can make from advertisers and readers isn’t. Furthermore you face the same truth as millions of middling rock bands – if you’re not on Apple’s front page, you may as well not exist. In space finding new readers is immeasurably harder. Far more sensible to do what Future has been doing with its cycling portfolio, which is look to tablet and smartphone editions as a way of winkling more value out of the cost base of paper magazines.
Is the iPad magazine a busted flush already? No, but it will take almost as long to reach maturity as the traditional magazine market and will require just as much trial and error. In my limited experience, the more weekly, traditional, wordy and formulaic a magazine is the better suited it is to reading off a screen. I subscribe to the Week, the Economist and the New Yorker and thoroughly enjoy them on a tablet. On the other hand, I download the odd issue of the luxurious Vanity Fair and never get round to opening it. Empire seems to work. Lots of other entertainment titles don’t. And tech. didn’t. So what? As the same old boss would say, if you don’t fall off from time to time you’re not trying hard enough.