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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.

I can't and don't blame Apple for declining subscribers.

I bought the publication hoping with a revamped responsive website, I'd attract more web-only subscribers, and with a couple of decades of marketing experience alongside my editorial background, that I'd be able to either reverse or stabilize subscriptions.

I can't and don't blame Apple for declining subscribers. We had started more as a journal of essays on topics that weren't quite technology, but of interest to those who were geeky. Over time, we'd add reported features and gone a little farther afield. Many early subscribers came on board for a few particular writers, like John Siracusa or Marco, or had subscribed to see what a new publication in this format was like. They rapidly fell away.

This is typical, too. People cancel their subscriptions for all sorts of reasons: boredom, finances, displeasure with an article, and more. At the same time, new subscribers (hopefully) come on board all the time. The key to a successful publication is managing churn so that you wind up with more new subscribers than the ones you lose.

The high cost of being tied to an app

We weren't subject to the issues that have seemingly led to major publishers not finding real success in Newsstand sales, as opposed to large numbers of people with subscriptions elsewhere using their apps to read a digital, offline edition. But we had a separate set of interrelated challenges as an independent by the time iOS 7 shipped.

First, it's very difficult to communicate with subscribers; second, Apple emails monthly subscribers every month with a billing reminder; third, the app needed to be in continuous development to add new features and mature; and fourth, Apple brushed Newsstand to the side with its new flat design in iOS 7.

Both the first and second reasons show Apple's commitment to consumer privacy and expectations, but they hamstring a publication being able to tailor offers or help readers get what they want. The monthly billing reminder, sent a few days before renewal, was a thorn in some readers sides. I have dozens of emails from people who bothered to complain before unsubscribing that they simply didn't like it, but I couldn't stop it. (We added yearly subscriptions in August 2013, which was too late to capture earlier subscribers who might have opted for that.)

App development is also a keen problem: Marco used his labor to create the app, putting in what I estimate would have cost $200,000 to $300,000 at the least if contracted out, plus all his acumen and experience. I'm not an iOS programmer, and was able to maintain the back end. As a result, even with a very reasonable contract arrangement, I wasn't able to fund necessary improvements in the app beyond maintaining it, and as we added more and more issues, the experience became unmanagable for many readers, judging by their complaints. (For instance, we needed a mark as read/unread option, a reading list option, better support for sharing articles, and a search function in the app.)


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