Zinio's new subscription product only solves half a problem
Just over a year ago, I argued that the future of magazines should look a lot like Spotify, meaning that the magazine stories should be disaggregated from bundles and then distributed on platforms that charge an all-you-can-eat subscription price.
Since then, Next Issue Media has launched, bringing magazines from Conde Nast, Hearst, Time Inc, Meredith, and News Corporation together on one subscription platform for reading on tablets. And yesterday, Zinio, one of the first movers in digital magazines, announced its Z-Pass, which gives customers a choice of three magazines per month, from a selection of 300, for $5 a month.
Both Zinio and Next Issue are moving in the right direction, bringing them more into line with digital media models that are already out in force for music (Spotify) and movies (Netflix), and is coming soon for books (Oyster). But both Zinio and Next Issue's models are flawed in the same way: They're stuck peddling content that was never really designed for digital.
It's true that publishers are getting better at adapting their print products for digital formats, and especially for consumption on the iPad. Tools like Mag Plus and Magzter (a Zinio competitor) are making that process easier and more flexible, while Adobe's digital publishing tools are also getting more sophisticated. For the most part, however, publishers are using these tools to adapt their designed-for-print products, merely adding in interactive elements such as slideshows, dynamic graphics, audio features, and video, rather than designing for the digital platforms from the ground up.
For proof of that reverse engineering approach, you need look no further than their digital magazine covers, which are for the most part just digital replications of the print versions, complete with text that's almost unreadable when shrunk down for display in a digital newsstand. At the same time, the magazine file formats are large, taking up precious space on tablets, and take a long time to download. They can also be difficult to navigate, often requiring instruction tutorials for first-time users to get familiar with the layouts and swipe-and-tap systems.
If platforms like Zinio and magazine publishers want to get serious about building for a future in which their products are consumed, and monetized, in large numbers on digital platforms – which just seems a no-brainer – then they should be working together to break the adapt-from-print mindset. If they don't do it, others certainly will.
Marco Arment's The Magazine has taken the lead, applying the principles for stripped-back design outlined in Craig Mod's essay on "Subcompact Publishing," and 29th Street Publishing is producing beautiful mobile magazines that travel lightly. Startups such as The Periodical Co and TypeEngine are helping publishers produce slick magazine apps for cheap, and with minimum fuss. And that's to say nothing of responsive design, which opens up possibilities for magazines to go truly cross-platform with all the inherent flexibility of HTML5. Just this week, Pitchfork showed off some of the potential of HTML5 design for magazine-grade layout with a parallax-happy "cover story" on Daft Punk. Vox Media's The Verge and Polygon are producing magazine-like reading experiences that adapt to any device.
In that context, Zinio's Z-Pass seems like a stop-gap to help bridge an outdated way of digital magazine publishing with a new media environment that demands more intelligent, digital-native design. It is not so much an exciting development in digital magazine consumption as it is a hack that will soon become a relic.