Format wars

A debate broke out last month over the future of periodicals on tablets. Although the participants focused on magazines, the implications apply to book and newspaper publishers, as well.

True to internet form, this debate followed a predictable path:

  1. An industry pundit, observer or funder explains "why tablet magazines are a failure"
  2. The CEO of a company that makes magazine apps says they are "here to stay"
  3. An informed insider provides a handful of examples that "aren't failures"

And… let the comments begin.

If you read through just these three pieces, you'll find overlap. In declaring tablets a dead end for magazine content, Jon Lund argued that apps are a high-cost solution to a small-market problem. Greg Hano, the CEO of Mag+, the software company that specializes in apps, says that growth is still possible and it's too early to write off this new medium.

For his part, Sam Kirkland, writing for Poynter.org, acknowledges the cost challenge but encourages experimentation. He concludes:

But that doesn’t mean publications should stop experimenting with apps completely — at least not until the Web becomes so robust that apps lose their advantages in bundling, design, and interactivity and this debate becomes moot.

Okay, it's not quite the makings of a flame war. It's just a debate about the wrong topic. When it comes to content creation, management and dissemination, we should be figuring out how to grow, not how to "not die".

Take Game Informer magazine, an example from Lund's motivating post. The magazine has the largest number (nearly 3 million) and highest share (38%) of "digital replica" paid circulation of any magazine profiled in Lund's piece.

Lund treats Game Informer as the exception, noting that GameStop includes a digital subscription to the magazine for anyone who buys its loyalty card ($14.99 at retail). The implication is clear: the circulation is bought through a partner.

But here's the thing about Game Informer that the commenters missed: it is by far the single largest magazine on the list.

Forget about tablets, apps, physical or digital formats: every issue, nearly 8 million people receive a copy of Game Informer. That's 2.6 million more subscribers than Reader's Digest. That's more than twice the number of copies sold by People magazine.

A generation ago, there was no Game Informer. Today, its circulation makes it the largest magazine circulated in the United States, delivered to an audience that most publishers think won't read.

Implicit in the "high cost, small market" assessment are two corrosive beliefs: people will only pay what they have paid in the past (if not less); and the market is static, or shrinking. Those untested assumptions lead us to look at a new platform – in this case tablets – as fundamentally an extension of what we've done in the past.

If they could shake this bias, Lund, Hano and Kirkland would likely find common ground in a focus on the unmet content needs of audiences. Some of that need can be met in print, and some of it will be better addressed using the platforms we have and the ones that have yet to be invented.

Here are the questions I'd like to have everyone ask first: What can we do to grow the market for content consumption? And, what can we do to grow the market for reading? That's where experiments matter.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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