Remember when the iPad was going to save magazines? Nearly five years later, tablets haven't replaced print so much as offered a supplement that seems to present as many challenges as it does opportunities. It begs a central question: Should publishers become app developers? One digital magazine pioneer says no.
The Magazine, a biweekly iOS publication originally built by Instapaper creator Marco Arment, is switching gears. After a notably successful launch in 2012, the digital mag is ditching its custom codebase and relaunching on the third-party publishing service TypeEngine. For The Magazine, the old "build vs. buy" question became a no-brainer.
"The honest truth is that without a quite high level of subscribers on a consistent basis, it doesn't make sense to fund an app," says Glenn Fleishman, who bought the business from Arment in May 2013. "The amount of work required to keep pace with what Apple is doing is just not sustainable."
The new version of The Magazine bears a strong resemblance to its predecessor: a minimal design with the same typographical style and a lack of visual flourishes beyond the occasional photograph. Its content—typically long-form, narrative-style journalism—is packaged in issues organized by date, tucked away in a slide-out menu the appears along the left-hand side when beckoned.
Avid readers will notice a few slight differences: simpler navigation, improved sharing options, and a simplified login process between devices. But the crux of what's changed here is on the backend: The Magazine now runs on somebody else's servers and, crucially, its maintenance and feature updates are somebody else's responsibility.
"Earlier this year I was working heavily with developers who were terrific," says Fleishman. "We made a bunch of progress but then we sort of hit some roadblocks where it was like, 'Well, we need to do this stuff. Is the money there? Does it make sense to continue developing the platform?'"
The answer wasn't clear until Fleishman had breakfast with some of the guys from TypeEngine. The white-label publishing platform launched in 2013, sporting a design and functionality that Arment himself noticed was strikingly similar to that of The Magazine. Indeed, much to Fleishman's delight, the publishing tools TypeEngine had built matched The Magazine's needs almost perfectly, minimizing the technical acrobatics needed to get things migrated.
"They've been focusing on solving the same problems that I've been concerned about," says Fleishman. "And it turns out that that same discussions I'd had with developers and other people were the same discussions they've had internally."
This wasn't the first time Fleishman considered partnering with a third party. Last year, he looked at platforms like 29th Street Publishing, The Atavist, and even TypeEngine, but didn't think any of them met the needs that were then fulfilled by his admittedly costly custom development effort. So he stuck with the codebase he had, paid programmers to keep it fresh, and kept trucking along.
But with each major upgrade to iOS, the cost of keeping an app like this up-to-date would only grow more onerous. With outside help, he managed to get the app into iOS 7-friendly shape, but began to wince at the ways in which The Magazine still didn't take full advantage of the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system. And then before he knew it, iOS 8 was unveiled.
"I'm absolutely not prepared as a single app platform developer to be able to afford the cost to actually take advantage of iOS 8," says Fleishman. Features like actionable notifications, for example, could open up new possibilities for publishers, but the payoff is impossible to ascertain before pouring dollars into development.
"That would be a huge problem in just a few months," Fleishman says. "If we can't take advantage of the new features that iOS 8 has, then I think we're even less relevant to readers."
By teaming up with TypeEngine, The Magazine essentially offloads these concerns onto a company with the time and resources to focus on them. For Fleishman, that means more energy to focus on the tricky endeavor of marketing the app and finding new ways to reel in subscribers long after the publication's post-launch hype has faded.
For The Magazine, the payoff of switching to a third party will be immediate.
"They have things like single issue sales, which I've wanted to implement forever," says Fleishman. "But it probably would've cost me on the order of tens of thousands of dollars to implement."
In addition to going with a new platform, The Magazine will tinker with its subscription model. Instead of only offering an all-access pass for a monthly (or yearly) fee, the publication will allow readers to purchase single issues for $1.99 with no commitment. To help rope people in, Fleishman is also opening up The Magazine's archives for free for 30 days.
All these changes represent the most dramatic shift yet for the first independent tablet-native publication to reach profitability (It did so within one week of going live) and thus will tempt observers to raise further questions about the economic viability of tablet magazines. Last year, the lack of any overwhelming success stories in tablet publishing led some to declare that the model had failed and even died altogether.
The Magazine, it should be noted, was born of a unique set of circumstances. Its creator was a prominent developer with an established following. And, as Fleishman notes, Arment's proficiency in iOS development and building out a backend system allowed him to keep his early expenses low.
Upon its launch, The Magazine not only reached nearly instant profitability, but it became the poster child of what Craig Mod calls "subcompact publishing," which eschews the skeuomorphic approach of most legacy publishers' tablet offerings in favor of something simpler: Compact issue sizes, smaller downloads, proportional prices, HTML text, and a general web-friendliness. Scrolling intend of pagination. Design navigations that don't require explanatory diagrams. Essentially, in Mod's view, everything the tablet-based afterthoughts of traditional publishers were not.
But while it's been widely praised and mimicked, The Magazine's long-term success was, of course, never guaranteed. Since its launch, the publication has lost a number of subscribers and struggled to market itself to new ones.
"We have thousands of yearly subscribers," Fleishman says. "We've seen a big decline in monthly subscribers. We are just trying to figure out how to reach those readers who would enjoy what we have, even if they subscribe for a few months."
Over time, Fleishman has realized that a publication isn't likely to thrive existing solely on tablets and smartphones. The Magazine's content has thus found its way onto sites like BoingBoing and Medium via content partnerships. Last year, The Magazine printed its first yearly anthology, a premium-quality hardcover book collecting some of the most notable work published in the pixel-based rag to date. While it made only a thin profit, the Kickstarter-supported run was successful enough to convince Fleishman that print has a place in The Magazine's future. Plans are underway to print the second edition later this year, albeit with some modifications to the cost structure.
"Because of the high perceived value, people will simply pay more for a permanent object that they can own, loan, show, and give to others," Fleishman says. "It's totemic where digital isn't."
Moving forward, The Magazine's approach is very much a multi-pronged one. An annual print edition, content partnerships, and a revised biweekly subscription model are all pieces of a larger strategic puzzle. And with the app running on a somebody else's platform, previously unthinkable things like launching an Android version may be coming down the pike, depending on Type Engine's product plans.
"Getting the technology shit off the plate and not having to worry about the app does conceptually free me up to work more strongly on the marketing front," Fleishman says. "I know I've got a solid app."
[Image: Flickr user Martin Voltri]