Why Magazine Apps Suck

Well, The Daily failed. It wasn’t all that fun while it lasted. And it didn’t last all that long. If everyone had known that it was going to cost $25 million a year to run, it probably would have been easy to predict its eventual failure. At a high level, the reality is simple: the economics didn’t come close to working.

But because the media industry loves nothing more than talking about the media industry, today we have dozens of stories with dozens of reasons for why The Daily failed. Blame News Corp. Blame Rupert Murdoch. Blame Apple. Blame Steve Jobs. Blame Eddy Cue. Blame the iPad. Blame the web. Blame native code. Blame Newsstand. Blame tablets.

As usual, when it comes to things related to Apple, John Gruber comes the closest by keeping the explanation simple: “don’t suck” and “start small.” If you don’t want your tablet-based publication to fail, those mantras should probably be plastered on your wall.

But I also think there are a few more things worth mentioning that encapsulate the problems with nearly all magazine and newspaper apps. In hindsight, this all should have been obvious, but it may well take the death of The Daily and the launch of Marco Arment’s excellent The Magazine to really paint a clear picture.

First, if your publication is over 100MB, quit immediately. You’ve failed.

When magazines first started appearing on the iPad, I was excited. I had been a magazine lover in my youth and could not wait to explore such content again. Unfortunately, the apps required you to download entire issues before reading. And these issues were often 500MB – 700MB.

I thought that would improve over time. Over two years later, it hasn’t.

To say this is ridiculous is a vast understatement, so I’m gonna throw the word “fuck” in there. It’s fucking ridiculous.

Even though the apps have evolved into Newsstand apps, they’re just as bloated as ever — many worse than ever. Newsstand was supposed to alleviate this issue by allowing for background downloading, but few publications seem to take advantage of it. Or it just doesn’t work. Turds all around.

Why are these things so large? Because most publishers are simply porting their content into digital magazine formats — essentially PDFs with some interactive elements that mainly seem to exist so ads can have some silly moving element, take longer to load, and crash often.

Then look at Arment’s The Magazine. Each issue is just a few megabytes. Sure, there are no images and no ads, but even with a copious amount of those things, I bet each issue would still come in well under 50MB — one-tenth the size of the traditional magazines. These smaller files take seconds to download as opposed to several minutes (or longer) for the bloated turd magazines. And downloading in the background works flawlessly.

To put it simply: Arment, as a one-man shop, made a much better product than all of the multi-million-dollar publishing houses could. And it’s directly related to point two.

Why do magazines on tablets look and act just like old-school magazines?

These tablet magazine issues are 700MB because the publishers want to cram in all the content that is found in the print versions of their magazines. At first, this surely must have seemed like the right thing to do — the majority of the content was good, after all. But it wasn’t the right thing to do. It was the exact wrong thing to do.

Magazines, like newspapers, are dying. Neither tablets, smartphones, or the web are going to save them. Some of the best and most popular will continue to exist for a quite a while, but they’re all going to the grave at their own pace.

The world has simply changed. We get our news in realtime now. And nearly everything we read is digital. This is why the web has been so good for new publications — most were built to take advantage of this instant digital reality and many have thrived as a result. There’s no reason tablets, which are almost always connected to the web, can’t take advantage of this speed, as well — and breed something new.

But the magazines and newspapers are stuck in the old way of doing things. They need to evolve. The other day I was having a discussion with Craig Mod about this — and you really should read all of his thoughts on “Subcompact Publishing”. What if instead of pushing out all your content on a monthly basis, you released a weekly “mini” version with new content and live updates as needed? Instead of getting one giant dump of content one time a month (most of which people probably won’t have time and/or desire to read), you’d get four manageable deliveries a month.

No one is saying that every bit of content has to be breaking news. It’s not going to be. In fact, most of the best content will be longer-form thought and opinion pieces. Magazines should own this type of content — they largely did in the era before the web. But in this new age of publishing, this content is often buried under other crap because the publishers insist on these giant payload deliveries of information (which a physical magazine is just a vehicle for, as well). Again, it’s just not the way it works any more.

Further, I think back to what Mark Zuckerberg has often said about other services tacking on social layers to their products and the end result not working. In contrast, Facebook works because it was built as a social app from the ground up (and you could argue this is why Facebook has done poorly in mobile; it wasn’t built mobile-first, it was tacked-on). A tablet magazine should be built for the tablet from the ground up. It should not be a magazine ported directly from print.

There are no pages to turn anymore. There are no pagination limits. You can touch all the content. Pinch. Zoom. Turn it horizontally. Whatever. There are so many things publishers could do if they dared to use their imaginations. And The Daily, as a brand-new publication, should have been at the forefront here. Instead, they decided to start anew with all the baggage from their News Corp brethren. Total fail.

The other element at play here is the (lack of) maturation of the distribution model. While The Daily did manage to get 100,000 paying subscribers, that’s not a lot when you consider the iPad’s overall reach of 100 million (and far more if you include the iPhone/iPod touch and, of course, Android devices). Imagine if a publication could capture 10 percent of that audience? Or even just 1 percent?

Such goals shouldn’t be unreasonable for a popular and well-run publication, but there has to be an ecosystem that works together to make it happen. Several blogs like this one took off because other blogs would link to it and vice versa. An ecosystem formed. Perhaps Apple and other tablet makers need better syntax and tools for one tablet publication to reference another.

Ultimately, HTML in some form is probably still the way to go here, but the payment layer in particular is a good argument for why the incentives of both Apple/Google and publishers should be aligned to make things more seamless on the native app level. They’re just not right now.

“Pure web” proponents may not like this thought, but that’s too bad. The advertising model works for some content, but for a lot of it, it basically sucks. And the direct payment layers aren’t anywhere near as seamless as they need to be on the standard web. Paywalls are called “walls” for a reason.

There should be an easy, quick way to directly pay a reasonable rate for content you appreciate. Apple has created that layer, but the publishers have whiffed badly when it comes to using it. On the flip side, The Magazine is already profitable.

I get asked often if I would ever create my own publication. The only way I could see that happening is to follow The Magazine model: creating a Newsstand publication tailored for tablets and smartphones that users directly pay for.

The key, obviously, would be to have great content. Content that people simply have to read. Content that cannot be ignored. The Daily never got there. The content was decent, but to make it in this new world, the content has to be exceptional.

And it can’t be too news-y — at least not yet. Any bit of content The Daily would publish would eventually be found on the web for free re-blogged by some other site. The focus has to be on individual writers expressing thoughts and opinions that can’t be replicated this side of pure plagiarism. It has to be about writing, at least at first.

The truth is that The Daily failed before it ever launched. They simply failed to take product lessons from apps like Flipboard and could not see the correct road ahead. Publications like The Magazine and TRVL are now the ones showing the way. Others will come and expand upon these ideas. And I suspect some of them will eventually gain millions of happily paying readers.

And I doubt many of those will be names you know right now. Because those guys just don’t get it and never will.