Let’s start by talking about the good parts of Next Issue, the new Netflix-style subscription app that houses some of the best magazines from Conde Naste, Hearst, and TimeInc’s stables, including the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Elle, Time, and Sports Illustrated.
As I’ve said before, centralizing the mag-reading experience is totally sensible. There’s absolutely no need for there to be one app per magazine. I’m very happy that Next Issue is attempting to create a one-stop shop for my reading pleasure.
The subscription model is great. $15 a month is a very reasonable price to pay for all the quality content that the likes of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair can offer.
The digital extras – video, audio, slideshows, interactive graphics, dynamic ads – are all cool, even if they already existed within the individual apps that have been on the market for a while now. In that respect, it seems Next Issue’s promotional video is kind of taking credit for merely not ditching these features, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re thinking the promo might be reaching mag-tablet first-timers.
And here’s the part where I use an entire line to say: “but.”
Next Issue is retrofitting the magazine for a platform that demands a customized reading experience. Tablets present a digital platform that doesn’t care about pages, doesn’t want to know about Quark or InDesign’s nifty copyflow tricks, and has no interest in a table of contents. Writer-designer Craig Mod explained that point elegantly and in much more detail more than a year ago.
Before I go any further, let me say that I haven’t tried Next Issue. I don’t have an Android tablet (aside from a Kindle Fire, which Next Issue doesn’t yet support). The following assumptions are based on the promo video, my experience with the New Yorker and Vanity Fair apps for Kindle Fire, and the way the product is described in numerous articles, the press release, and the Next Issue website. If I am wrong, I will gladly correct my statements and leave my mistakes in full public view so commenters can flagellate me with their cruel words.
So, from what I can tell, what Next Issue is giving us is a collection of bundled-up, glorified PDFs. In other words, it is more or less porting the paper product into a digital environment.
That means we’ll be getting large files to download. We’ll have to wait while those big, beautiful spreads heave themselves from the server to the app so they can wow us with their Retina-friendly megabyte munchers. Sure, waiting five minutes for a download might be a small price to pay for the privilege of not having to go to a shop to buy the paper product. But this is the Internet we’re talking about. Consumers demand instant gratification. We need to be moving towards faster distribution, not heavier and laggier.
We’ll also be getting a pretty clunky browsing experience, as one would expect from what is essentially a paper product that has been digitized.
As I sit on my couch swiping or sliding past the New Yorker’s event listings or Vanity Fair’s 942 pages of ads for Burberry trench coats, I’ll be wondering why I can’t tap on beautiful finger-friendly images that open my story right away. But then I’ll remember that we’re caught in a moment in which publishers still haven’t figured out how to capitalize on digital platforms without having to sacrifice their century-old business model (and, honestly, fair enough – it’s an interminably difficult problem to solve).
Next Issue will come with a lot of fat, too. While I might be willing to pay $15 a month just to get the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, I’ll also be getting Elle, Better Homes and Gardens, Parents, and Conde Nast Traveler. I know Next Issue thinks this is a wonderful “discovery” opportunity, but I know right now that I will never open one of those issues. They, or the images that invite my tappage, will just sit there hogging space in the interface, reminding me of a cluttered newsstand and my old morning ritual of immediately throwing away the zero-interest sections of the daily newspaper before tucking into my toast.
And of course I’m repeating myself, but these publishers really should be thinking about breaking up their bundles and letting readers slice and dice their content as they please. The digital future for magazines will be about stories, not packages.
They could look at the Longform app for iPad, for example. There, magazine stories are presented individually and sorted by brand, whether it be a magazine title such as GQ or a curated reading list such as Longreads. So the New Yorker imprint still serves as a crucial indicator of quality, but the reader doesn’t have to wade through the content that’s not relevant. The stories are delivered, via the publishers’ websites, efficiently and with low fuss – just pure, clean text and large pictures.
Longform’s model is by no means an adequate solution for magazine publishers’ problems – for a start, it just wouldn’t work for a picture-heavy publication such as People. But it at least shows the potential for atomization and exhibits laser-like focus on the reader experience.
Earlier today, I chatted with Longform’s co-founder Aaron Lammer, who neatly summed up Next Issue’s conundrum. “In order to succeed,” said Lammer, “it needs to solve problems that readers have, and not just problems that magazines have.”