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How Newsstand failed The Magazine, and what Apple should do

Glenn Fleishman | Oct. 31, 2014
Apple's Newsstand was introduced with iOS 5 as a place for apps designed to deliver content in the form of a periodical--whether continuously as new articles or in the form or regularly produced issues--to gain superpowers. A Newsstand app could change its cover each issue, update images on demand in the App Store, automatically download content in the background, and have a free trial period.

Apple's Newsstand was introduced with iOS 5 as a place for apps designed to deliver content in the form of a periodical — whether continuously as new articles or in the form or regularly produced issues — to gain superpowers. A Newsstand app could change its cover each issue, update images on demand in the App Store, automatically download content in the background, and have a free trial period.

Then, after some fanfare, and major publications adopting the Newsstand format, emphasized on the iPad but available on the iPhone and iPod touch as well, Apple more or less left it to rot. In iOS 7, they hid the embarrassment of the tumbleweeds surrounding Newsstand by removing the tiny cover previews that used to dot the skeumorphic interior, making it a flat, unchanging icon, while turning the special folder's interior into something unexceptional, even homely.

I've followed this transition closely: first as the executive editor of The Magazine, a publication created exclusively for the iOS 6 version of the Newsstand by its owner, Marco Arment; then, after purchasing it from Marco, as its publisher and chief bottlewasher. After over two years in publication, we plan to stop producing new issues after our December 18 issue, but continue to maintain and update the app and our Web archives.

Newsstand's mission and nature

Newsstand was part of Apple's multipronged effort to woo publishers to bring their media to the iPad primarily, although they encouraged iPhone/iPad universal apps, which most publishers embraced. However, Newsstand was and perhaps remains a key miscalculation on Apple's part as a tool for publishers.

The notion was that Apple would offer unique options to Newsstand apps, a special permanent folder on the home screen, and promotion in the iTunes Store in exchange for the investment of time and money by publishers to participate. This included background downloads, the ability to change the app's icon as a cover and iTunes Store screen captures on demand, and the use of an XML feed to provide details as new issues appeared for publications that didn't just deliver a stream of updated articles.

Periodicals survive in the long term by replacing the inevitable cancelled or lapsed subscriptions with new ones. That's an obvious fact. Publishers need to measure churn carefully, and they produce tailored offers for renewal to existing subscribers. It's much less expensive to retain someone who already gets your publication than to acquire a new reader. Publishers may spend more than the yearly subscription price to get a new subscriber; it's only in subsequent years that they make profit.

Apple severed this relationship in part through its seemingly customer-focused approach to privacy. While as a consumer and a publisher, I love that Apple would rather withhold private information (such as name, address, phone number, and email) from other parties than disclose it. But this is a mismatch in the periodical world.

 

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