As I read Jason Pontin’s piece about how Technology Review decided to turn its back on magazines-as-apps in favor of HTML5 publishing, I felt a sense of horror. Horror at how close I came to making exactly the same costly mistake.

Seven months ago, when I announced my bold (and at that point entirely un-thought-out) plans for a new tablet-focused satirical news magazine (“the Economist as written by ‘The Daily Show’”), I was extremely bullish on Apple’s Newsstand and its clunkier cousin, the Kindle magazine store. Our magazine would be optimized for those stores, I wrote. As a paid-for publication, there was no other sensible choice.

And yet…when Not Safe For Work Corporation finally launched a few hours ago, there was no Newsstand edition, and no Kindle store edition. Instead, it’s HTML5 all the way.

And as I read Pontin’s explanation of how TR blew $124,000 on outsourced software development I felt horror at how much of our investors’ money we could have wasted, and how much stress we could have suffered had we stuck to our original plan. But I also felt relief: We dodged a very expensive, very annoying bullet.

The logic behind publishers initial embrace of the Newsstand makes total sense. Free content has canibalised traditional magazine sales, making it near impossible for high quality magazines to be profitable online.

The Newsstand gave them a second chance, allowing them to deliver a distinct, print-quality package to consumers in exchange for a virtually frictionless payment. Book publishers are kicking ass with that business model, why should magazine publishers?

Here’s why: Books are, by and large, an immersive experience. They don’t need links, music, video or any of that kind of nonsense.

They don’t need to be constantly updated, week in week out. They don’t have — ugh — comments. As such, books — like music or movies — are perfectly suited for paid downloads. Magazines, on the other hand, have evolved into something far more interactive.

The idea of a once-monthly (or weekly) collection of topical pictures and words, delivered as a 500mb file, without links or other interactive elements is anathema to the connected consumer. If they want those things, they’ll buy a paper magazine (which increasingly, of course, they won’t). For most people, periodicals are accessed in the browser, usually for free.

But it’s important not to conflate the apps vs HTML5 debate with the paid vs free debate. As the Financial Times (which just announced the closure of all its native apps) has proved, it’s perfectly possible to sell paid subscriptions to an HTML5 publication, just as it’s possible to sell subscriptions to a website. You just have to make the path to purchase easy enough and the value proposition compelling enough.

Moreover, HTML5 allows publishers to replicate almost all of the native app experience, without the gigantic downloads and many of the bells and whistles that consumers have shown themselves entirely uninterested in. Content can be updated instantly, links behave way more familiarly and — joy! — you can read them anywhere, on any device. Sure, you lose the in-app purchase convenience of the newsstand, but that would have to drive away more than 29% of potential customers before paying Apple’s commission on app purchases becomes a better deal. Oh, and apps cost a fortune to build and an even bigger fortune to fix, when they inevitably don’t work properly.

It was a combination of all of these reasons, plus a general nervousness about publishing a satirical magazine on a platform controlled by the notoriously prissy folks at Cupertino, that made me abandon the development of our newsstand edition before it even began. I have no doubt, though, that I was also very lucky. Not Safe For Work Corp is an entirely new publication, and, as such, we spent the first few months of our existence hiring writers, figuring out our editorial voice, arguing over style guides and all that fun preparation stuff. If we were a pre-existing print publication, we’d have been able to jump straight to the app building stage — doling out development money almost immediately, and continuing throughout the 3-4 months it took me to realize what a clusterfuck the Newsstand is.

Phew.

We’re also lucky in that our new-ness means we don’t have an existing Web presence. A publication like the New Yorker or Wired will have a much tougher job convincing people to pay for an HTML5 in-browser magazine. Why pay for content that’s already free through the browser in a slightly different format? The FT dodged this bullet because they already charged for much of their online content. We dodged it by being a paid publication from day one.

Still, shiny new HTML5 “app” notwithstanding, convincing subscribers to pay for NSFW Corp won’t be easy. We tick a lot of will-pay boxes: offering satirical comment and analysis as opposed to highly commodotised news, keeping our price point low ($26 for a whole year of weekly issues), offering a completely ad-free experience…but still, without offering boobs or stock tips, paid content is hard. At the same time, though, we’re absolutely not going to give away free subscriptions. I’ve been clear from the start: We pay our writers and illustrators a decent wage for their work, and great, funny content — without the stench of SEO — is worth paying for. (Call us the anti-HuffPo, please.)

And so, we’ve come up with what I hope will be an effective way to build our initial subscriber base and kick off that all-important word of mouth — without compromising our business model. We’ve convinced a raft of sponsors to pay $5 per subscriber to let in a few thousand people from our beta waiting list for free. The arrangement means we get an initial spike of paid subscribers, without expecting individual readers to buy before they try.

In return for their generosity, sponsors get branding on the login/registration page (the magazine itself is ad-free), an ad on our daily audio show, and a text shout-out in every email we send to “their” sponsored subscribers.

There’s only one slight catch to the waiting list model: We already have way more people on the list than we have sponsored subscriptions to give away. It turns out, though, that scarcity breeds anticipation, and all day NSFW’s Tweet stream has been blowing up with people begging to jump the line. Who knew?

The ability to throttle access to the pilot issue, to offer discounted bulk subscriptions to sponsors and potentially later to A/B test different price points are just three more reasons why HTML5 kicks the Newstand’s ass six ways from Sunday.

Really the only thing surprising about our (and Technology Review’s) decision to ignore apps is that we ever held a different view. More surprising, and alarming, still is that some publishers still do.

PandoDaily readers, of course, are a special breed and one deserving of special treatment. As such, the first 50 Pando readers to email beta@nsfwcorp.com mentioning PandoDaily will be fast-tracked to the front of the line. You’re welcome. Update: we ended up letting over 100 Pando-ers in, as they came in too fast to know precisely who was in the first 50. Fast-track is all gone now, but normal wait-list sign-up is still open.

If you’re not quick enough to grab a fast-track subscription, feel free to join the wait list anyway. And while you’re waiting, you can listen to our daily audio show, NSFW Live, available through iTunes store. You’re also welcome.

(Main image credit: PJ Perez, for NSFW Corp)