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It's Not File Size That's Killing iPad Magazines

Since the announcement and launch of the new retina display iPad, designers have been pointing out the obvious problem, magazine downloads that were already huge are going to become absolutely enormous. But magazines on the iPad have bigger problems than file size.

I spent over a year working for a startup trying to build a publishing platform for tablets, we failed. There are a lot of reasons for the company’s demise but I’m going to focus just on one: Print magazines are still a better experience than their digital counterparts.

If you’re going to successfully evolve into a new medium you can’t just add gimmicks, you have to substantially upgrade the user experience. If you asked anyone 15 years ago what the future of music looked like they would have told you that it was about fidelity, listening to an album would sound like you were at a concert or in the center of the orchestra pit. But that hasn’t been the case, in fact the overall quality of the music we listen to has gone down. The experience of being able to fit your entire music collection in your pocket, or stream any song to your phone leapfrogged any fidelity improvements other formats like DVD audio could make.

We never saw this kind of improvement in magazines, if fact the experience has gotten worse. Looking at a magazine on an iPad at its best leaves you wondering if you’ve seen all the content and at its worse feels like you’re reading a broken PDF. I subscribe to two magazines that have free iPad downloads for subscribers and have never download the digital version, reading the dead tree version is just easier.

How can magazines improve? They are no longer limited to releasing content on a monthly or weekly basis that was necessary with print. They can now put their content out in a format that is really easy to share and build reader loyalty. They can now get back to their roots, magazines like Rolling Stone were founded by people who ate, breathed and crapped music. I’m sure there are folks working there now who love music but we haven’t seen that kind of passion in the magazine in decades.

I know what you’re thinking: we’ve seen all this before, it’s called a blog. Yep, exactly.

It’s taken time, but blogs have become what magazines should have been evolving into. A complaint heard over and over from traditional journalists is that the web couldn’t do the kind of in depth journalism that their print counterparts do. This mantra is probably repeated more for the self esteem reasons than anything based in reality. If you take a look at a site like The Verge it’s hard to find any tech journalism in any medium that’s better. It’s only a matter of time before large news sites have the same budgets and reach that newspapers and cable news networks have now. In blogging you are forced to keep your finger on the pulse of what your readers want or you’ll die a quick death.

Magazines aren’t just dying because they don’t understand a new medium, they are dying because they don’t understand the audience they’re trying to serve. The decision to use Adobe’s platform (or anyone else’s, even the one I worked on) wasn’t made to make a great magazine, they were made to get onto the iPad as fast as possible with as little overhead as possible. Publishers flocked to the iPad because the app model looks so much like the publishing model that they were familiar with. Publishers have gone into self preservation mode. They are trying to make a small profit wherever they can and in the process have thrown away long term reader loyalty for short term profits. Occasionally I would hear a publisher talk about what their readers wanted, but it was always under the guise of some gimmicky new feature that might get them some press attention and rarely about the core content.

In the end it isn’t file size that’s killing magazines it was the decision years ago not to more aggressively embrace the web and evolve their business.