Peter Kafka

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Finally, a Reason to Read Magazines on a Tablet

Remember Next Issue Media, the “Hulu for Digital Magazines” consortium made up of the biggest names in publishing? It has finally delivered something worth talking about: Call it Netflix for Magazines.

The pitch is simple and intuitive: All the magazines you want, delivered digitally to your tablet, for a flat fee of either $10 or $15 a month.

There are catches, of course, and we’ll get to them in a minute. But the thrust of what NIM and its publishers are trying to do here is heartening, because it shows that they’re willing to experiment, for real.

They’re keeping their core business model — curated bundles of content sponsored primarily by advertising. But they’re making a key concession by not requiring consumers to make a commitment to any particular title and letting them swap out magazines at will.

Not a coincidence: Two years after the iPad launched, consumers have only shown a mild interest in tablet magazines — digital represents just 1 percent of the industry’s circulation. Publishers need to do something.

Now, on to the catches. The good news is that most of these are solvable. The bad news is that there are a few, and for now, they’re big:

  • The digital magazines require an app that will only work on Android tablets running Honeycomb. Next Issue says it will submit a version to Apple soon and hopes to have it available this summer. No word on Amazon’s Kindle Fire or Barnes & Noble’s Nook, which run earlier — and heavily modified — versions of Google’s operating system.
  • You can’t get any magazine you want: Just 32 titles from the four magazine publishers in Next Issue’s joint venture: Hearst, Meredith, Time Inc. and Conde Nast. (News Corp., which also owns this Web site, is a Next Issue backer, but hasn’t put anything it owns into this offering.) That said, the list includes lots of the publishers’ best-known titles: Sports Illustrated, Fortune, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Elle, Better Homes and Gardens, etc. Next Issue says it will add more “later this year,” and also plans to bring outside publishers into the offering.
  • If you like reading magazines in both print and digital form, this offer won’t work for you. While publishers have recently started bundling print and digital subscriptions for the same price — essentially giving away digital in exchange for full-priced print subscriptions — these deals don’t include any print issues at all.

But for all of that, there’s plenty here to be optimistic about, whether you’re a magazine maker or a magazine reader.

Publishers have struggled to figure out how to take advantage of the iPad and other tablets, and for now they’ve ended up with something that looks and works almost exactly like a paper magazine, with a couple digital bells and whistles.

That’s not a terrible thing — some of the tablet issues work well, and publishers tell me they think they are selling them to new readers, which is a good thing.

But for two years there haven’t been many compelling reasons to pick up a tablet issue instead of a print one. Changing the basic subscription proposition, though? That makes things very interesting.

It’s also very much an experiment, which is the word every publisher I talked to about the launch used in the last couple days. “No one has done this before, and there are lots of practical reasons for that,” says Hearst’s John Loughlin, who oversees the publisher’s tablet efforts.

And publishers still have basic stuff to figure out, like how they’ll get paid for their titles. The rough idea is that they’ll get a share of revenue based on the amount of time consumers spend with their magazines, but they still need to hash out details.

The same goes for conversations about circulation and advertising. Right now, for instance, the magazines you read when you give Next Issue $10 a month (if you want monthly titles — if you want weeklies like the New Yorker, it’s $15 a month) won’t be counted in publishers’ official totals.

But all of that sounds good to me. It sounds like an industry ready to try some stuff and see what works. Just like all the start-ups that insist they want to disrupt it.

“Anybody that tells you that they have the answer, or that their model is the model that would be successful 5 years from now — they’d be suspect,” says Loughlin. “We’re very much in a learning mode.”

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