The Digital Future of Magazines?

I have a confession to make. I love magazines. You could say I am a magazine addict. This doesn’t really fit with my image as a digital media professor, but I can’t help myself.

Maybe it has something to do with the smell of a new magazine, that unique combination of glossy paper and ink.

Maybe it has something to do with my upbringing. I first subscribed to a magazine when I was in 6th grade. It was 1980, and my class received an election info packet from U.S. News & World Report. It had bios about the main candidates (Reagan, Carter, and independent John Anderson) and information about the electoral process.

It also included a subscription card that I took home and asked my parents to send in. I continued subscribing to U.S. News & World Report for several years. I was a little Alex P. Keating in the making. (I’m still a little sad about the end of the U.S. News monthly magazine)

Wired iPad AppEven today, I subscribe to a number of magazines, from Wired to Entertainment Weekly, from Southern Living to Parenting School Years. My mother used to give my wife a subscription to Woman’s Day every year, and I think I was the only one in the house who actually read it.

But I think my love affair with magazines boils down to a love of what’s inside each magazine. I love the conciseness and variety of the articles. I like that I can finish an article in an evening. I love books too, but I have never been one of those people who can finish a book in an evening, or even a few evenings.

I like being able to walk away from a magazine article with a little tidbit or an image or a statistic that I didn’t know before.

The magazine industry also helped fuel my addiction. After I started teaching full-time, I started receiving offers for free magazine subscriptions!

Magazines like DV, Studio Monthly (formerly AV Video and Multimedia Producer), Digital Content Producer (formerly Video Systems), EventDV (formerly EMedia magazine) came to my office every month for free, all I had to do is share some information.

I loved taking my newly read magazines down to the computer lab and leaving them in the racks for my students to read. I required some classes to read related articles and write short summaries to encourage them to engage the ongoing discussion in their field.

But then something began to change. Most of these magazines started getting thinner. Then some of them moved to a pay-only model. Others stopped printing monthly magazines and went completely online.

This seems to be a growing trend in the magazine industry. In 2009, 64 magazines went online only, and in 2010 26 more made the digital jump.

A funny thing happened, however; something just didn’t translate. I didn’t go to the websites of these magazines that I read religiously each month. It doesn’t make sense. The articles are the same. They often had more images and links to the things they were talking about. And it’s not like I’m a technophobe. I could easily visit these sites on my MacBook Pro, or my iPad, or my iPhone.

I really can’t say why I don’t visit those sites. I can’t say why I resent assigning my students a list of URLs to visit instead of walking over to a rack of magazines. I guess I just prefer the magazine form.

But I’m afraid that I am the exception not the rule when it comes to magazines. The fact is that more and more magazines are closing their doors permanently.

Last issue of Layers Magazine

"The End of an Era," the last issue of Layers Magazine, Jan-Feb 2011

According to MediaFinder, 428 magazines stopped publishing in 2009, 525 magazines ceased printing in 2008, and 591 shut down in 2007. And these are not just obscure, niche magazines that no one has heard of. Magazines like Gourmet, Modern Bride, Teen, Nickelodeon and National Geographic Adventure have all ceased printing in recent years, along with U.S. News & World Report that stopped printing its monthly magazine in December 2010.

Many magazines that have survived are doing so by virtually giving away their product. Some are severely discounting their subscription rates to keep their numbers up, so they can maintain their advertising rates to stay afloat. I recently re-subscribed to Southern Living for less than $5 for the entire year. Recently, I received an offer to subscribe to a magazine for 3 years (36 issues) for only $12. That’s 33 cents per issue!

Just like music, movies and books, the future of magazines is digital, but digital magazines need to work out a few kinks in the system. Instead of spending millions of dollars on a “Power of Print” ad campaign, the magazine industry should take that money to lower the cost of digital copies of their magazines.

I believe the future of magazines is on devices like the iPad, and I’m not alone. When the iPad was first released, many were predicting that the device would radically change the future of magazines.

But the honeymoon was short-lived. In the last days of 2010, dozens of articles focused on the drop in iPad magazine sales. One of the key statistics was that when Wired magazine’s iPad version debuted in June, it was downloaded more than 100,000 times. No one mentioned that the first Wired iPad edition was free!

But the reality is that Wired’s iPad sales did drop from an average of 31,000 downloads between July and September, to around 22,000 downloads in November.

This in no way surprised me. I am a Wired reader and an iPad owner, and I haven’t purchase a single iPad copy of the magazine. Why would I pay $3.99 for the iPad version of a magazine that I could get the print edition for $1 per issue?

Wired took a step in the right direction this week, making its iPad versions available to its subscribers at no additional charge. I truly hope that other magazines follow suit quickly. For the magazine industry to not only survive but also thrive in a digital economy, they need to address a few key issues:

First, digital magazines cannot cost more than their print counterparts. No matter how much industry insiders argue that digital copies cost just as much, because of server space, copy protection and legal services, the average consumer does not believe it. The eBook market has shown us that digital editions that cost less than the print editions do sell and do make money. The pricing issue is paramount to the continued success of the magazine industry.

Second, digital magazines need more outlets than the iPad. This one is tricky for me personally as an Apple person. I began working on a Mac in 1989, and I have never looked back. I also love my iPad. But if digital magazines are going to thrive, they need choice and they need competition. I know there are several companies hoping to dethrone the iPad as the tablet of choice, but someone needs to at least become a strong second if the magazine industry is going to make it through this transition.

Third, the magazine industry needs to figure out how to make money on their digital editions. This has been the elusive component for every traditional medium from music to movies to newspapers to books. For magazines, advertising is the key. How can they leverage advertising in the digital realm in a way that is valuable to advertisers? Right now it seems that most magazines are just transferring their print ads over to their digital editions, and Google is dominating the online advertising scene.

Some may disagree with my prescription for the magazine industry, and others may see a new, more interactive form replacing the traditional magazine. No one really knows what the future will bring. The big question is what to do next. I could just sit around and bemoan the fact that many of my favorite magazines are gone, but for now, I’m going to enjoy downloading the last year’s worth of Wired on my iPad and hope for the best.

[NOTE: This article was originally published on the International Digital Media and Arts Association website www.idmaa.org.]