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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.

The 30-percent fee was clearly not an issue so much as that the fee never reduced: If Apple had taken 15 percent in subsequent years, perhaps it would have been more compelling. Instead, rather than reap most of the reward for renewing subscriptions, publishers had to give up a good chunk to Apple.

And Apple missed three big things, which I'm surprised to this day that it did: Magazines didn't want to develop a new production workflow, didn't typically want to bear the cost of app development in house or through contractors, and were required to produce "digital replicas" to count issues towards circulation in setting ad rates.

These three factors led many publications to push issues, sometimes with multimedia elements added, through Adobe's tools into issue containers. However, customized and even later spiffed up these containers were, they were still focused on the print edition and print workflow.

We are only in the last year finally seeing the shackles removed and entirely new kinds of periodical apps appear — it requires publications to launch new versions, invest heavily, or rely on subscriptions instead of advertising.

Placed high up on the rack

The Magazine has been the marquee independent publication in the Newsstand. I don't claim this out of egotism — given that I'm about to stop publishing new issues, that would be a strange trophy to grab. Rather, it's based on both the way in which the app was seized on when Marco introduced it and cited as an example in the last two years, and by the relative position of our app in the top-grossing list in iTunes, where I know what my figures are and can thus deduce the relative position of much, much larger publications.

By creating a streamlined publication from scratch that had all the subtlety of one of the most experienced iOS programmers — who had also built and grown Instapaper — coupled with Marco's clean design aesthetic (aided by Louie Mantia and his colleagues at Pacific Helm), The Magazine seemed to embody everything that Apple was striving for with the Newsstand. We also paid writers well for digital-only work: somewhere above the typical rate for online versions of print publications and below the same publications' fees for appearing in rpint.

Instead of cluttered, reduced-scale versions of actual newsstand covers, Marco and Louie (and later I) designed work that was legible as a thumbnail and at larger sizes without having any text except its nameplate. (I later added issue numbers as the publication persisted.)

The attention Marco got both as creator of Instapaper and for creating an interesting app, while also in early issues publishing the writing of a number of Mac luminaries and well-known developers, led to a surge of early subscriptions. At our height, the magazine had nearly 35,000 monthly subscribers paying $2 every month. Our peak, however, was February 2013. Knowing the numbers full well, I bought The Magazine in May 2013. We now have about 2,000 yearly and 4,000 monthly subscribers.


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