The Future of Magazines Should Look a Lot Like Spotify
The options we have for reading magazine journalism in the digital format are pretty sad. We live in an era of self-driving cars, augmented reality, and we can keep a map of the entire planet in our pocket, but we are stuck reading magazine journalism the way it has always been presented: in dead print load-dumped onto unfeeling pages, tied up into inseparable bundles (even if they are digital).
Tablet computers may well be the saviors of magazines, but even in the face of declining circulations, magazines are doing little to save themselves. Magazine reading on tablets is proving to be almost as cumbersome as it is on paper, with an anachronistic page-turning mentality baked into the apps and a copied-and-pasted design lifted directly from the versions you buy at the drug store. But the worst part is the distribution.
Take Apple’s Newsstand for the iPad. It’s okay. You can have all your digital magazines stored in one folder. The magazines are easy to get, relatively cheap, and pleasant enough to look at. But it’s not good enough.
The first problem is that there is an app for each magazine. To subscribe to the New Yorker, Wired, Vanity Fair, GQ, The Atlantic, Details, New York, and Time, you’ve got to have seven different apps, many of which are bloated. Some issues of Wired, for example, have weighed in at 500MB each. And what do you get inside? Aside from the occasional animation, or supplementary audio and video, they’re basically just digital facsimiles of the paper product. Worse – you can only get the stories if you get the whole magazine.
So here’s an idea for how to do it better and make money from it.
Break up the bundle. Present stories on an individual basis. Do to the magazine what iTunes did to the album, but do it with a Spotify model. And put it all into one app.
In short: build a platform not for magazines, but for magazine stories.
Here’s how it works. You have an app called something like Mag Reader. When you open Mag Reader, it shows you a list of the latest works from your favorite publications, as well as ones that align with your interests, or the stories currently most talked about on social media.
Each story is listed with a small picture, headline, by-line, date, relevancy rating (just like Netflix’s customized recommendations), introductory teaser, and publisher name. Before clicking through, you can expand each one to see more art work, the first few paragraphs, who has recommended the story, links to similar stories, and what else the publisher has put out recently. If you feel the urge, you can even buy the magazine issue into which the piece has been bundled for paper consumption.
You have a profile page, just like you do on Spotify or Facebook, on which your most recently read stories are listed alongside the stories you recommend most highly. On your page, you can also list your favourite magazines and writers, along with your interests. Perhaps you even list all the readers you follow, Twitter-style. You can discover new stories through the social connections you have built around your profile, just like you do now through Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader (people still use that, right?).
Each writer has a profile, too. Some writers will be affiliated with magazines; some will be independent. You can follow your favorite writers, so you’ll always know when they have a new story out. On his profile, a writer has a bio, links to his stories, and perhaps even a "works in progress" section that comes with a "donate" button, so readers can make financial contributions to stories they’d like to see materialize, Kickstarter-style.
Publishers have brand pages, as well, just like on Facebook. At each page, you can read about the magazine, check out the masthead, perhaps watch some behind-the-scenes footage, and maybe even subscribe to their bundled products.
The story-reading experience is seamless and alive. You can highlight passages you want to make a note of, just like you can on the Kindle. You can look up specific words in a dictionary. Publishers can easily integrate multimedia into their stories. Writers can update their stories as new information comes to hand. On each story you can leave comments that will then, if you so choose, publish to your Facebook profile. You will be able to sort comments on the stories to prioritize the ones written by "Friends" or "Friends of Friends" (thanks, Roman Meytin, for that idea).
The design is beautiful and publisher-led, so each story retains its publisher-specific imprimatur, but within certain parameters that make the reading experience consistent and intuitive. Suddenly, the magazine reading experience will be fully interactive, fully social, and properly centralized.
So how does it make money?
For a start, magazines can include ads within their individual stories, allowing advertisers to reach audiences on a highly targeted level. The major source of income, however, will be through a Netflix-style all-you-can-eat subscription model. For $10 a month, you can have access to all the magazine journalism you can dream of.
For 10 million subscribers (a fair long-term estimate, considering iTunes’ 200 million users, Netflix’s 23 million streaming video subscribers, and magazine circulation numbers in the US), that’s $100 million of monthly revenue – or $1.2 billion a year – that can be divided between publishers and the platform owner.
Of course, magazine publishers will resist. Their business models are based on the bundle. It will likely take an Apple or Amazon or Google to make them see the light. But the atomization of the magazine is inevitable. It’s better for writers and better for readers. If the revenue split is done well, it should also be better for publishers.
Some readers will complain that they’re losing the non-story bits and bobs that are otherwise included in the magazine bundles – the Readings in Harper’s, say, or the Party Lines in New York magazine. No problem there. These could be offered in the Mag Reader, too, either individually, or as part of the whole magazine, which readers could easily download.
Others will suggest the Mag Reader is similar to what is being done by Flipboard and Pulse. But those products, while excellent, are mere RSS readers with good design and some sharing functions pasted on. They can take only content that is being offered free on publishers’ websites.
Of all that is on offer, the little-known Flud is perhaps the most promising. It has created an Instagram-like experience for socializing the reading experience, in which people can choose to follow friends or folks they find interesting and discover stories that are relevant to them. This is a great step forward for helping users discover journalism, but it so far lacks the focus and flexibility that Mag Reader would offer for avid readers, journalists, and publishers. Like Pulse and Flipboard, it also relies on RSS feeds for gathering content and it doesn’t have much in the way of magazine journalism.
Mag Reader, on the other hand, will offer an end-to-end reader experience that centralizes, simplifies, and at the same time diversifies the consumption of longform journalism, while offering deep social features that increase readership and bring magazines up to speed with the digital era.