Apple's Newsstand: Salvation or Strife for Publishers?

It’s no secret that I’m an Apple product fan.  I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m an Apple fanboy, even though I do own several products: an iPhone, laptop and iPad.  I love them all, especially my iPad.  With the advancements in the iOS platform that Apple engineers are touting as the latest and greatest, I’m very excited to see enhancements being made to Mail and document sharing via iCloud.  Beyond my need for basic office functions however, I use my iPad primarily for consuming content from a variety of sources.  I have subscriptions to various news papers and magazines, like the New York Times and WIRED, which I enjoy reading on the go.  I love reading news and blog content on my iPad – it’s absolutely amazing and it is breathing new life into a tired industry.  Among the latest features coming in iOS 5, Newsstand is Apple’s way of allowing consumers to easily digest news and media content in a handsome package.  But will it revive publisher’s hopes of regaining lost revenue and propelling them further into the 21st century?

First, let’s answer a key question.  What exactly is Newsstand?  According to Apple:

Read all about it. All in one place. iOS 5 organizes your magazine and newspaper app subscriptions in Newsstand: a folder that lets you access your favorite publications quickly and easily. There’s also a new place on the App Store just for newspaper and magazine subscriptions. And you can get to it straight from Newsstand. New purchases go directly to your Newsstand folder. Then, as new issues become available, Newsstand automatically updates them in the background — complete with the latest covers. It’s kind of like having the paper delivered to your front door. Only better.   -          Apple.com, 9/1/2011

According to Apple, iOS 5 will create a special folder on your iPhone or iPad that will specifically contain newspapers and magazines from content publishers across the globe.  All consumer transactions will be handled through the familiar iTunes account interface and new editions of publications will auto-download to your device without any interaction from the user.  They hope to make Newsstand work for news and media consumption how Cover Flow worked for iTunes: make it easy for customers to access the media they want in a functional and intuitive interface.

But will it work?

OUTSIDE APPLE'S WORLD

Newsstand is only going to be as good as the content store that supports it - that is, the repository that publishers will use to host and market their content to users.

The problem with the way thinks work in iOS 4 is there exists no way to categorically search for published media.  As things stand right now, if I want to search for all the magazine subscriptions available for purchase in the iTunes Store, I have to do an app search according to the publisher.  Unless you're knowledgeable about which publisher creates the magazines you like, you're stuck doing a Google search to find out who writes Vogue or Popular Mechanics - not a fun way to spend an evening.  To solve this problem, apps like Zinio exist to fill this gap and provide you with the latest in content all in one easy-to-use app.  But apps like Zinio only go so far (for example, they don't offer newspaper subscriptions).

The linear issue I have with Zinio is that what am I supposed to do when Newsstand comes out and those publishers I was accessing through the app aren't quick to jump over to Apple's business model?  If you have an existing subscription to a magazine that’s only available through Zinio, then it looks like you’re going to have to continue that relationship with Zinio and carry an extra account for publishers utilizing that service.  That kind of sucks for consumers like me that trust the Apple brand and want to have their media in a tidy package, who want a one-stop shop (or icon) to access their subscriptions through.  Not everyone is willing to accept the terms that Apple is offering, especially smaller publishing houses.  It’s one thing when Conde Nast (Vanity Fair, GQ, The New Yorker…) and Hearst Corporation (San Francisco Chronicle, Esquire, Popular Mechanics…) can offer cut-rate subscription pricing to gain a broad readership, but what happens when their smaller, regional competitors like Metrocorp (Philadelphia Magazine) can't afford to cut into their revenue the same way?  They may not see the value (or be enough value) in adapting their business model to natively support mobile devices.  Some of the best publications are from small houses, which know regional news and can make it juicy without flash or BS.  This is the real future of the American news publishing industry – hyperlocal content.

So if you’re a smaller publisher, you then have to ask yourself: “Do I take a hit on the subscription revenue to gain readership, just to put my content on the shelves of Apple’s Newsstand?  Sure the big guys can afford to offer $1.99 per month subscriptions for WIRED and Esquire, but can I cut my rate down that much?”

My fear is that everyone else who isn’t one of the big guys will answer no and the consumer’s ease of use will suffer.  I don’t want to have to use both Newsstand and Zinio to access my content and there are even publishers that don’t want to use an app at all.  Some content providers have opted to keep dollars invested in their content creation and not hire a Objective-C developer, either in –house or at an outside firm, to create an app just for them.  Instead, those content providers opt to present their publications through the use of Adobe’s PDF format, involving yet another application into the content digestion fold – iBooks.  While this strategy may save on the company’s bottom line, it’s hardly the first choice for consumers and will ultimately wind up bottlenecking their readership growth, long-term.

JOINING THE 21st CENTURY

The major thing that publishers need to understand is that to compete in the 21st century, you need to go where the readers are.  Media publication is no longer a matter of simply reaching readers.  It’s a matter of reaching that on their level.  To do that, publishers big and small must see the value in technology and embrace it, rather than seeing it as another line item on a monthly balance sheet.

A good example of how a publication doesn’t have to change its personality just because it modifies it’s content delivery is National Geographic.  For years my father had a subscription to NatGeo, which started when he was a child.  He even collected back issues of it, going clear back to the 1930’s.  In time, I grew to read it on my spare time while in elementary and high school.  Those that are familiar with what NatGeo has to offer, relish in the exceptional writing and the impressive Pulitzer Prize-winning photography, and they enjoy the illustrations that don’t just enhance the story but bring it to life.  For me, it’s in the details: page layouts and font types they use, in addition to the content.  The most impressive thing about National Geographic on the iPad is that it doesn’t change.  It’s the same publication I grew to love back in the fifth grade, yet instead of being dropped through my mail slot in a brown wrapper or plastic bag, electrons carry stories of worlds unseen and others unexplored are brought to me in a one-minute download and placed on my device for enjoyment whenever I want.

Apple’s Newsstand is an awesome idea and will soon push newspaper stands in your city the way of the pay phone, but only if the supply of its virtual shelves can keep up with readers growing demands.  It's a catch-22, as Apple will have to be able to keep content offerings fresh to attract new readers, but will have to convince publishers big and small to come to the table, offering them the opportunity to grow their readership exponentially.