Marginalia: A Wishlist for Digital Magazine Distribution Services

Since about 2008, the subscription rate for print magazines has been declining exponentially. No one – whether publishing industry insider or consumer – is in any doubt that digital is the future of magazine publishing, for better or for worse. Nor is there too much debate that quality content must be paywalled because creating it takes time, talent, effort and needs to be compensated. [Sadly, this compensation continues to be problematic as publishers have yet to see digital subscriptions grow enough to offset print subscription losses and print ad losses (likely due to a lot of the free and not-necessarily-quality content online) and continue to reduce their journalist/writer ranks – forcing some well-known journalists to go entirely independent with their personal brands, or  displacing entire swathes of them from the industry.]

Before we get too far, let’s use a common definition for magazines here – I’m referring more to periodical publishing such as popular, trade or scholarly magazines. Daily news periodicals are an entirely different discussion though almost all of them are digital now and some are subscription-based (e.g. NYTimes, WSJ).

Let’s set aside the fact that social networks are a growing source of information / news. Even though friends and family tend to be an important and frequent source of news, when more in-depth and thoughtful parsing or explaining is needed, we have to invariably turn to more expert sources.

Let’s also set aside the fact that pretty much all major print magazines are available in libraries because, let’s be honest, that is not the most convenient option, particularly when, say, you might find yourself with time to kill in a doctor’s office and don’t care for the ubiquitous celebrity mags that they lay out. With mobile devices, we now want to be able to get our quality magazines anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

So, various digital magazine distribution services have been evolving along with available technologies and platforms. Some examples – Zinio, Next Issue (a joint venture between Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp., and Time Inc.), Apple’s own Newstand app, Amazon Magazines, the online newsagent Newstand (not related to Apple), Coverstand and Qmags. Each of these has various appealing, not-so-appealing and differentiating features, but, none is entirely perfect on its own. [Note: I left out Longreads and Byliner, which are excellent aggregators of quality journalism and short stories from some of the best magazines, but, they’re not entirely distribution services by strict definition.]

To level-set, let’s go through a quick, non-expert overview of 2 from the above list – Zinio and Next Issue – as these are the most advanced in terms of multi-platform magazine distribution technology and subscription models.

First, the similarities between both:

  • Magazines are interactive with a lot of digital-only extras as well as embedded video/audio (rich media).
  • Online and offline viewing is possible.
  • Free or bonus articles from various publications are available on an ongoing basis.

Then, the differences:

  • Zinio – This is like the Netflix of magazine distribution because of how they provide access across all platforms, their subscription plan, and magazine count (5000+ and covers many categories and countries). iOS/Android/Windows/Kindle apps are stunning with a lot of interactivity and embedded video/audio features. The Z-Pass subscription option allows 3 magazines per month for $5 and allows you to switch them around each month. There are also ongoing deals / offers for single issues or annual subscriptions.
  • Next Issue – This would be like the Hulu of magazine distribution. Content is mostly from the parent companies, so 98 magazines at the time of writing this post. 2 subscription options are available, starting at $10/month and you get 88 and 98 magazines with each respectively. From a technology perspective, while it is available for mobile devices, for laptops/desktops, there’s only Windows.

So, which is better?

My personal preference is Zinio because I don’t think I will ever have time to browse, let alone read, 80+ magazines. The Next Issue service is like buying a cable subscription and getting 50+ channels, of which you only ever watch 4-5. Zinio also feels like a better reading experience on mobile devices, has a lot more magazines to choose from and the 3 magazines/month $5 Z-pass is a winner.

That said, here’s my wishlist as a consumer for next-gen digital magazine distribution (and, you’ll note that it’s more of an App Store model overall rather than the Netflix or Hulu models above):

1) Allow subscription by number of articles per month. This would require the magazine publishers to unbundle their articles and, like the TV industry’s challenges around this, I imagine the former will also balk because of the way they sell ads per issue. Clearly, the ad-selling model needs to evolve for magazines for this to work. But, I would happily pay, say, $10 a month for 25 articles that I can pick a la carte based on keyword selections and excerpts.

2) Enable commenting / discussions with other readers. Yes, content behind paywalls / subscriptions is in a closed system, so the social aspect of sharing/discussing with friends is not feasible. But, discussing with other subscribers should be allowed like, say, paid online sites like Wall Street Journal allow.

3) Figure out a way to get some of the smaller-circulation magazines on board – e.g. literary ones like The Believer, Ploughshares, etc. Again, this might be more of a magazine issue, whether they want to be on these distribution platforms. But, surely, they can only grow readership, not lose them by including this channel. If nothing else, they could start by providing a handful of individual articles. This would be the equivalent of, say, how cable companies provide a la carte special interest channels that have a per-month per-channel add-on charge.

4) Allow the in-app (in-mag?) ability to buy individual print versions of digital magazine issues on an ad-hoc basis – say, for example, a special anniversary issue or a collector’s edition. Heck, if this is going to be possible, then allow the purchase of individual articles as well, like some of the news publications do now on their sites.

5) Allow independent journalists / writers to publish their one-off publications as well. Let them set their prices within certain guidelines like, say apps on Apple/Android App Stores. And, let subscribers / readers discover them based on keywords and excerpts. Quality control might be an issue here, but there are ways around this – get reader ratings like in App Stores, monitor algorithms and analytics for reader density by topic, author, etc. This would not only help a lot of the aforementioned displaced journalists / writers but it would also allow new ones to gain some publication experience to add to their resumes (with stats, ratings, etc.) before they sell their souls to the big, established players.

Yes, the smaller-circulation magazines and the independent one-off publisher options are both going to create a long-tail of content. But, isn’t that the beauty of digital? That we can manage this long-tail online while providing quality, personalized and wide-ranging choices to readers? I’m not suggesting that these platforms become as cluttered and banal as a lot of the free content online. Subscription-based monetization should continue as the mainstay. Just give readers like me more reasons to stay engaged and subscribed. Oh, and a couple more subscription package options wouldn’t go amiss (although, let’s not go overboard like some of the telecom or cable companies with all their pricing complexities that make billing a nightmare).

Are you a reader / subscriber of any of these digital magazine distribution services? What do you like or don’t like? What’s on your wishlist? Let’s put it out there and perhaps the powers that be will take note.

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