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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 turning apps in the Newsstand essentially invisible curtailed any possibility of a revival.

Finally, Apple turning apps in the Newsstand essentially invisible curtailed any possibility of a revival. Marko Karppinen wrote sensibly in October 2013 that his publishing platform firm could no longer recommend to its clients that they develop new publications to appear in the Newsstand: "Once downloaded, Newsstand publications are hidden away within the Newstand app." If I moved my app out of the Newsstand, all the in-app subscriptions would have been cancelled, dooming it.

The faux folder also behaves differently from all others. You have to tap the Home button to exit the publication and then again to exit the folder. This drives countless readers nuts, based on email and public comments about my and other publications.

I have hundreds of emails from readers beginning with the release of iOS 7 complaining that they forgot to read new issues, even with notifications and having subscribed to our low-volume, announcement-only email list. Many would get their billing warning each month, realize they hadn't read a single article in weeks or months, and cancel. I didn't blame them.

Slowly sinking below the surface

However, I persisted, hidden away, watching subscriptions disappear by the thousands each month. In November 2013, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a hardcover anthology of our first year, and it funded well above its target, raising nearly $57,000. Some of the "extra" funds from the Kickstarter were ploughed into a website design and more app development. I was hoping the attention from the Kickstarter would provoke a new look at the publication, but its support was mostly garnered from lovely people who already knew about it.

But with revenue continuing to ebb, I was never able to finish the work with the developers nor launch the site redesign, either of which might have had a beneficial effect, but it was hard to see how.

Because we were unintentionally nearly all-in with the App Store, the design and feature changes there affected us strongly. With yearly subscriptions (some sold during the Kickstarter campaign), about 75 percent of our revenue in the last 12 months came from the Apple Store; for monthly subscribers, it's over 90 percent.

During 2014, I shed expenses, reducing our scope and some articles' length, communicating to readers as we went, and transitioned to TypeEngine's publishing platform to keep up with iOS 8 and be on track for future improvements without supporting the development cost directly.

But the writing was on the wall: Even with a new app and a loyal base of readers, we couln't continue without slashing writing fees, and I already feel we pay at the bottom of the scale I'm comfortable with for the quality we demand. While profitable from the first week, that margin has shrunk to a sliver.


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