Publishers conspire to create iTunes for Magazines, but can it succeed?

Tue, Nov 24, 2009


The success of the iPod had wide-ranging effects on the music and tech industry.  First and foremost, the iPod resurrected Apple as a tech heavyweight.  Second, the success of Apple’s iTunes/iPod combo gave Apple an un-precedented amount of control in the digital music realm, and often left music publishers feeling helpless.

In light of that, the publishing industry has been wary of Apple’s reported attempts to secure published media content for its upcoming and rumored tablet.  Many in the publishing industry want to avoid a situation where Apple holds all of the negotiating power, as it did, and still does in relation to digital music.  If you recall, Apple was able to keep the pricepoint for songs on iTunes at $.99 for years, and it was only recently that Apple finally acquiesced and allowed music labels to experiment with tiered pricing.

All that said, it should come as no surprise that a consortium of publishers are reportedly banding together to create what has been dubbed an iTunes like store for print media.

According to the New York Observer, the proposed platform will house “new and distinct” Magazine content that will work across a multitude of media platforms, from the iPhone to the BlackBerry.  Impressively, some of the biggest names in publishing are already on board, with others rumored to be interested as well.

The company would make up one of the biggest alliances among rival publishers ever formed in print media, with Time Inc., Condé Nast and Hearst all expected to join, houses that together publish more than 50 magazines, including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Esquire and O, The Oprah Magazine.

An official deal between all the parties involved is not yet finalized, but the report notes that a signed agreement may only be weeks away.  Should that happen, The Observer notes that “John Squires, an executive vice president at Time Inc., is planning to leave Time Inc. and become the interim executive of the new company.”  His term, however, would be limited to 6 months after which the newly formed company would hire a full-time CEO.

“It’s pretty complicated stuff,” said a source. “The really, really hard part is that you’ve got so many different kinds of devices running on different operating systems. And how do you handle that? The consortium provides one point of contact for the consumer. When you come to the main store, you can get the content any way you want.”

In addition to building up the store, each publisher will actually have to figure out how to build digital versions of their own magazines.

And all those moving parts is exactly what makes us skeptical of this thing actually getting off the ground.  Remember that the music industry also tried a number of initiatives to “figure out” the whole digital music craze, but failed time and time again.  The complexity of a solution is only magnified when you increase the number of parties involved.  Each will have their own ideas and interests, and inevitably, people are going to butt heads.  Moreover, the publishing industry, until proven otherwise, lacks the expertise and experience to create compelling digital content capable of running seamlessly across multiple platforms.  And besides, not every platform is even capable, or at the very least worth of, running high-end magazine content.  Are you really going to get a full-on Magazine experience on a small BlackBerry or Palm Pre screen?  As it stands now, the most appealing devices for published content are probably the iPhone and the Motorola Droid, and even their screens provide limited utility for the content often found in popular magazines with high-res photos and glossy print.

When you think about it, an iTunes-like store for print media only makes sense in the context of an Apple Tablet with a large screen.  The problem, though, is that the Apple Tablet, despite an abundance of rumors, is just that – a rumor.  Until Apple officially announces an Apple Tablet, and lays out what it’s capable of doing, the new initiative on the table between the large publishing houses above seems destined fall flat.

Overall, it seems that the publishing industry realizes that it should do something, but just isn’t quite sure what that something is.  So they’ve gotten together with an idea to form a new company dedicated to providing published content for media devices without really thinking about what it would take to make that venture a success.  If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the music industry, those responsible for creating and distributing content are often ill-equipped to embrace technology in a way that attracts consumers.



2 Comments For This Post

  1. chano Says:

    What is happening to publishers is not comparable to the effect that iTunes has had on the music industry. Music, like most entertainment media are purchased for repeated consumption. News and magazine articles have a single-use value for 99.99% of people. It becomes public knowledge. By its very nature, when a news item is published it is placed in the public domain. No one can have a proprietary interest in a news item – only in the words they use when they publish an article on that news item. Even then, a diligent plagiarist can re-issue their content as his own provided they re-write the story in their own words. When a song or tv show or film is ‘published’, its content is someone’s intellectual property and so ownership can be claimed. As a result, no one in their right mind would suggest that issuing a song or a show puts it into the public domain where it can be freely copied and redistributed. Many do try though, I admit.
    News and magazine publishers have to accept the simple obvious truth that they do not, indeed cannot, own the stories they report. They can only claim ownership of articles that they generate themselves such as commentary, reviews and editorials etc…. in other words their original material. Interestingly, the National Enquirer may be an exception since so many of their ‘news’ stories are pure fiction and so 100% owned by them.
    What is happening is scary-fast evolution in the single-use publishing space. As soon as digitisation arrived, the life span of these sectors came under threat. Apple is not the cause and nor is Google. They are merely the leading agents of these forces of changes. In the same way that digital cameras have all but killed the film stock industries, the days of single-use paper publishing are fast coming to an end. Thus, while books will survive and perhaps even thrive for a long while because they are not always single-use items and can be sold or exchanged for value, newspapers and magazines have no residual value once consumed and so they are fast approaching their extinction date.
    I hear the wailing and the gnashing of teeth. But there is no alternative. There is no new print format or distribution method that will delay their demise. Their only hope is to move to digital publishing models that might survive at least a while longer. But who will pay to consume their single-use offerings? In many countries, tv and radio are funded by ads and so, you don’t have to pay for the programming itself. Single-use publishers will have to accept an ads-based income model with no cover price at all. Whether they can still create a model that will make the kind of profits they are used to is another matter. Kodak suffered a loss of franchise because film is a single-use medium, unlike memory cards. How much profit does Kodak make from 35mm film nowadays? Companies can survive such force-majeure deadly changes in their business franchise, as Kodak, Tandberg and many others have demonstrated. But if a company can only do the one thing, and that one thing is a single-use item that falls out of demand, there is no other end but death.
    Instead of becoming aggressive and protesting and scheming to try and carry on as usual, publishers have to recognise that profound changes have taken place. They have to accept that, whether they act singly or gang together to act collectively, they cannot stop this trend. The only alternative then is to find out what they can do, which will sell, and to pursue that with all the money and energy at their disposal.
    When enough time has passed and the dust has settled, we will see that even the blog sites that undermined the newspaper and magazine industries will face a massive shakeout whereby only the useful and (sadly) the provocative ones will make any real money.
    I think that it is a good thing that organised news organisations either fail or go through a profound change and a loss of power. In an ideal world, we will have news-gathering agencies and small independent journalist/creative writer-driven sites and no newspapers or magazines. As for magazines, A single Google maggregator site could do it better and with close to 100% editorial integrity, which is far from common with today’s magazines.
    Change is in the air. Embrace it or it will crush the breath out of you, slowly, expensively and very painfully.

    Chandra Coomaraswamy

  2. chano Says:

    apologies for the typos and other errors of wording….
    More haste, less speed – or at least less accuracy in my case.

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