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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.

A lost opportunity or smart business

When iOS 8 went into developer betas, and so many interesting features began to be discussed, as well as a more developer-friendly approach, I had hopes. Perhaps Apple would "solve" Newsstand, and rescue it from neglect. Maybe it would break us out of Newsstand jail and let publication apps coexist, even if we had to give up showing a changing cover as the app's icon. (It seemed unlikely Jony Ive would allow this, but he's a clever man, and I thought he might have a solution to meld static app icons with changing covers.)

The Newsstand abides, a wasteland for publications that only use it as an adjunct — and us.

But iOS 8 went into release with nary a change. The Newsstand abides, a wasteland for publications that only use it as an adjunct — and us. The failure to improve iTunes and the App Store for discovery also remains problematic. It's really impossible for people to find a publication that matches their interest when all they find are top-ten lists and a field to search for something they already know they want.

I don't blame Apple. Newsstand clearly didn't become a growing source of revenue for the company. The iBookstore never quite took off, either, though it's clearly worth continuing to run. (But not improve the tools. If you want to hear a lot of swearing, talk to epublishers who sell through Apple's systems.)

Apple shouldn't waste its time on lines of business that are smaller than rounding errors — that are more like noise and distraction than revenue and profit.

What could Apple do to right the situation, if they want it to work? You can imagine I have a few pieces of advice:

Release publications from the Newsstand, allowing users to install or move them wherever they like.

Provide a secondary mechanism to reach readers outside of notifications and the app while preserving privacy, with an opt-out choice. Publishers need a path to reach readers.

Stop sending monthly reminders for monthly subscribers. Every three months would certainly be enough, and a lot of users clearly told me they found it annoying.

If Newsstand is to persist, it needs its own app for users to find publications, download sample issues (currently not available; only free trials), and manage subscriptions. The intregation with App Store and iTunes is maddening and confusing.

I'm not sure, however, if all these changes would have kept my publication alive or let it thrive. Readers are fickle, dear reader, and it may be that the audience for our particular approach was too slim no matter what. I'd like to think, despite decades of successfully marketing various editorial projects I've built or been involved, that I wasn't creative enough this time.

But you can't test reality against alternatives: It is or it isn't. And in this reality, The Magazine finishes up is regular run on December 18.


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