Words win where tablet magazines’ bells, whistles fail

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 would applaud Future’s decision to close Tech, its iPad magazine, after just seven months. He would also note this as further proof that content does not 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 cited 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 Communication.

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 Newsstand, 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.

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 on 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 apps, all bells and whistles, 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 is 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 the need for trees, ink, trucks or retail outlets.

When we closed The Word last year, we looked closely into the possibility of keeping it going as an iPad-only title, but it simply didn’t make sense. The cost of your journalism is just as high, but the amount you can make from advertisers and readers is not.

Furthermore, if you’re not on Apple’s front page, you may as well not exist.

Finding new readers is hard. It’s far more sensible to do what Future has been doing with its cycling portfolio, which is to 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 enjoy them on a tablet.

On the other hand, I download the odd Vanity Fair and never get around 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. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

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