I have been working in the digital magazine industry for most of the last decade. Earlier it was at ZDNet, at the time the online arm of Ziff-Davis (PC Mag, Yahoo Internet Life, EGM, CGW, etc), and after a stint in academia I worked for a digital magazine service provider for the past four years. Print has had a rocky relationship with digital, similar to the rocky relationships that the music and movie industries have had and for many of the same reasons. Back in the last 90′s the game was content repurposing – strip out the content from the magazine and repackage or otherwise syndicate it online. The problem then and now is that digital has been ad-supported and attempts to lock it up behind paywalls have (as of yet) proven ineffective, with the exception of the Wall Street Journal and other high-value niche publications.
Now, more and more smaller publications are switching to digital replicas. Instead of repurposing the print content it’s displayed online in the exact same format as the physical publication (including ads), which provides a number of benefits. If it’s an exact copy apart from linking and multimedia insertions, it can be counted as paid circulation despite it not being physically mailed. It is also usually in a format that makes copying and pasting the content into other sources more difficult, and often is accessible only via some sort of login or authentication mechanism.
All this changed this week with the latest rumors about an Apple tablet. Rumors about an Apple tablet are nothing new – I did a little research a few months ago and found that they went back at least 5 years and fit a pattern: either recent patent filings or an anonymous but supposedly well-connected source said that Apple would unveil a tablet or slate in the next quarter… or the next year. No tablet appeared, so rinse and repeat a similar rumor next year. The difference this time is that the rumors include meetings with magazine publishers and that fits the recent Apple business model. If they could provide an experience for buying digital magazines similar to and as easy as iTunes, they might bring the ink stained wretches in print into the 21st century after all. They could even manage to sell magazine content by the article in the same way more singles are sold on iTunes than whole albums. (Note to music industry: maybe people will buy whole albums if they were not 3-4 good songs and 10 pieces of filler)
However, also reported this week was that the largest publishers may form their own joint venture (found via Mashable) to create their own digital magazine storefront. They most likely worried that the market for digital magazines will find itself with a new gatekeeper, similar to how iTunes is the number one distributor of music in the US. They’d naturally prefer something more like Hulu, which is a joint venture between NBC, Fox and ABC. The alternative is partnering with Amazon and hoping that the Kindle DX display has enough resolution to reproduce magazine content in greyscale (color is still a ways off), or that Microsoft’s Courier booklet device isn’t released well after the market has already been sewn up by Apple, like with the Zune.
So, what does this mean for digital magazine providers who are not Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and whatever Time names its joint venture? My personal take is that the biggest fish (Time, Hearst, Conde Nast) are rapidly becoming unobtainable, especially if the three combine their efforts. They may select one of the existing digital providers for their rendering technology or they might just go with Adobe PDFs locked down to a piece of hardware, but I strongly doubt they’ll be shopping individual titles out to different vendors in the future. Amazon and Apple may do the same – if their own in-house conversion and rendering tech isn’t up to snuff they’ll purchase or license whatever they need. Much like with independent music sites like Amie Street or Magnatune, there will still be a market for digital trade or B2B magazines and other niche titles, but they’ll want their formats compatible with what works on the Apple device. Not being compatible with the major players would be like releasing your band’s music in a non-mp3 format.
Of course, this could be all speculation. Another year may come and go without an Apple Tablet, magazines make look awful on the DX (although it may be perfect for newspapers and academic journals) and the Mayan calendar may flip a bit before the Courier is released.