When Marco Arment launched The Magazine in October last year, media watchers got excited about its business model. At the time, The Magazine was an iOS-only product (you can now subscribe and read on the Web, too) and charged $2 a month for a publication of geek-oriented essays that arrived every two weeks. Within a month, the publication had already reached financial sustainability.
Things haven’t been so rosy since. In May, Arment sold The Magazine to its editor, Glenn Fleishman. In the ensuing months, the publication has still been pulling in enough revenue to cover its costs, but it has recently started to lose subscribers. Fleishman, who won’t give out subscription numbers, suspects the iOS7-instigated changes to Apple’s Newsstand have something to do with it.
When Apple rolled out the latest iteration of its operating system for the iPhone and the iPad, it came with a Jony Ive-inspired lick of paint that significantly changed its look. One of the most substantial changes was to be seen in the Newsstand, Apple’s cornered-off section of the App Store dedicated solely to periodicals. Whereas the Newsstand in previous version of iOS looked like a bookshelf hosting a row of magazine covers, the new version is opaque, showing only a diagrammatic representation of generic magazine covers.
For an Apple design, the Newsstand icon looks decidedly juvenile. But what’s worse for publishers is that there is now no visual reminder within the Newsstand icon that there are publications inside, waiting to be read. On top of that, in iOS7 users can now hide the Newsstand icon inside a folder. The once-special treatment that Apple gave publishers in order to encourage the distribution of magazines to the iPhone and iPad had apparently vanished, at least in terms of visual prominence.
Now, Fleishman is worried that, without the visual cue, readers might be forgetting that his publication even exists. “I get email regularly from readers who say that they forget that issues come out,” he says.
Fleishman uses push notifications to remind readers when a new issue is available, but there’s a limit on how many such reminders you can send before you start getting on people’s nerves. He’s considering changing The Magazine to a weekly publication, even if it publishes the same number of stories as it currently does, just as a way to justify reaching out to readers on a more frequent basis.
He believes Apple doesn’t think the Newsstand is as important as it once was, because the company hasn’t made enough changes to improve it. His view is supported by Marko Karppinen of digital publishing startup Richie, who has argued that it now makes more sense for publishers to prioritize a stand-alone app over a Newsstand app because, to paraphrase John Gruber, the Newsstand is now more than ever a place where apps go to be forgotten.
“The newsstand isn’t dead,” Fleishman says, “but [Apple is] hiding it in a way that makes it less useful for publishers of any scale.”
Undeterred, however, Fleishman is instead looking to branch out. As he strives to get The Magazine to profitability, he’s attempting to diversify, starting with a print book that features a selection of the publication’s work from its first year. Fleishman is halfway through a Kickstarter campaign in which he is trying to raise $48,000 for the project. With 22 days to go, it has brought in more than $20,000.
Fleishman has also partnered with blogging platform Medium to make some shorter pieces produced by The Magazine available for free. However, that partnership hasn’t resulted in much traction. Even when Medium promotes The Magazine’s content, there is not a lot of “discovery architecture” built into the site, says Fleishman, so sometimes the stories languish in a vacuum.
Meanwhile, one of Fleishman’s peers has a more optimistic view of the changes to Newsstand. David Jacobs, co-founder of 29th Street Publishing, says the arrival of automatically updating apps in iOS7 has resulted in a bump in subscriptions and activity for one of the magazines it publishes, The Awl’s Weekend Companion.
He also says the Newsstand’s background downloads – which means publications are available for immediate reading every time Newsstand is opened – is also still the most reliable way to get a new issue onto a subscriber’s device, and “only in the Newsstand is the delivery all but guaranteed.” (However, background downloads are now available for all iOS apps.) The Newsstand also still boasts some unique advantages over other apps, including free trials, the ability to update covers, and the opportunity for subscribers to share direct contact information.
However, Jacobs agrees that the design of the Newsstand app is “abysmal,” and that the old-style wooden shelves were much preferable to the “frosty stripes” that the magazine icons now sit on.
Perhaps the most important challenge faced by The Magazine, 29th Street Publishing, and their peers is the fight for reader attention. People have so many free, and high-quality, reading options these days that any barrier to entry can be taken as an excuse to just cross something off the list. Indeed, that was the motivating force behind science publication Matter’s recent decision to stop asking readers to pay for its content.
For Matter, which is now owned by Medium, the problem of getting its content in front of new readers was compounded by the difficulty of being noticed by other media and distribution networks. “[I]t turns out that other outlets – from major news outlets to solo expert bloggers, and everywhere in between – are pretty reticent to write about, syndicate, or even link to, paywalled material,” the Matter founders wrote in a blog post explaining the decision.
Unless Apple makes some unexpected changes to Newsstand, it will not be helping publishers win that fight for attention. For The Magazine’s Fleishman, at least, that means it’s time to seek solutions outside the product that Apple once marketed as a great hope for publishers.
Says Fleishman: “I hooked my wagon to a star that has dimmed in Apple’s eyes.”