Can A Netflix For Magazines Catch On?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 21 2015 @ 3:55pm

Derek Thompson is one of many considering the question:

Next Issue Media was born in 2011, with some of the largest magazine publishers onboard. Charging $15 per month for access to about 140 magazines via phone or tablet, it’s built an audience of a couple hundred thousand subscribers, Joshua Brustein reports in Bloomberg Businessweek. Brustein notes that this week Magzter, another newsstand of digital apps, is launching a similar service with access to “2,000 magazines—including Maxim, ESPN the Magazine, and Fast Company—although not to any of the 25 most popular magazines at U.S. newsstands.” But as Brustein writes, a Netflix for magazines remains the impossible dream of the industry.

What Next Issue and Magzter are principally offering is a Netflix for something far less popular than magazines: magazine apps.

Many magazines still have print circulations well into the millions—National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Cosmopolitan, and Time all top 3 million—with monthly online audiences in the tens of millions. But far fewer people are paying extra for the apps. Take out Game Informer Magazine, which offers discounts along with its digital subscription, and there is no magazine in the country with more than 300,000 app subscribers.  The print-magazine industry is struggling, and yet the magazine-app industry is, to a title, between 10 and 100 times smaller. There is not much here to re-bundle.

Derek adds, “and the Internet is already Netflix enough for most news and entertainment consumers.” Matthew Ingram also mehs over Magzter and its competitors:

I don’t share this enthusiasm [for] a number of reasons: One of them is the user interface that is offered by most of these services — which tends to employ a somewhat tired “bookshelf” or “newsstand” metaphor that can be difficult to navigate. Meanwhile, the magazines themselves tend to be bloated PDF-style formats that are effectively giant photographs of existing print pages. They take forever to download they are cumbersome to navigate through.

magzter-bookshelf

But the biggest problem with such services is the problem of discovery: One of the main reasons why people like to use Spotify and Rdio and Netflix and similar services is that they make it easy to find new content, whether it’s by sharing playlists or by using algorithm-driven recommendation engines. Netflix, in fact, has what is probably one of the most powerful recommendation algorithms on the web today, and it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing it and fine-tuning it so that it works for people. There is nothing similar in most of the NextIssue-style services, and so they essentially force you back into old-fashioned behavior — namely, browsing through magazines, flipping virtual pages.

Magzter is trying to master that “discovery problem” with its own algorithm, but Ingram isn’t impressed. Joshua Brustein notes that the newcomer is also trying the competitive edge of “offering a larger selection of more obscure titles and by selling subscriptions internationally.” But he joins the skeptics:

Netflix-like subscriptions for reading material are still in their early days. In addition to the magazine experiments, there are several similar services for books run by Amazon.com and startups Oyster and Scribd. In all these cases, it’s not clear that anyone but the most voracious readers will save money by signing up for an unlimited multimagazine subscription. For about three-quarters of Next Issue’s $180 annual fee, a reader could get separate digital subscriptions to The New Yorker ($60), Bloomberg Businessweek ($30), Rolling Stone ($20), and National Geographic ($20). The average Next Issue user spends about two hours per week engaged with the app, so it’s fair to ask whether people need much more than that.

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