Monday, May 31, 2010

Newsweek releases iPad app, discounts issues

With first bids due no later that 5:00 PM ET on June 2nd, Newsweek staffers are preparing for new ownership, while at the same time moving forward with new projects such as developing the weekly news magazine's first iPad app. Released late Friday, the app is free to download and gives readers access to a small special issue, Politics in the Age of Obama, as well as five issues, each priced at $2.99.
The special issue is described by Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, as "our inaugural offering" for the iPad -- meaning, I assume, that the issues offered of sale are merely issues ported over to the device.

"Every generation makes its own mark, only a few, however, profoundly change the future," Meacham writes in grandiose fashion in the editor's intro. "For nearly six centuries, the generation that gave us Gutenberg and the printing press has shaped humanity in an infinitely of ways."

"It is clear that we are now living in a time and among innovators who are likely to be remembered as the Gutenbergs of a new age. As digital platforms take the place of the printed page as the central means of media, Steve Jobs's iPad is a landmark development," Meacham writes.

Later Meachan states that Newsweek plans to "make for use of this emerging technology," referring to the iPad. But that is for the future, for the issues offered, including the special issue that is their "inaugural offering" does not really take advantage of what the medium can do. Yes, the photographs do pop from the "pages" as the tablet's display can render color and resolution in greater clarity of detail than the printed page might. But the short special issue includes no embedded or streamed video or audio, and wouldn't Obama have been a good subject in which to use these tools?

Left: Cover for special issue included for free in Newsweek's iPad app.
Right: photographs and cartoons (B&W!) are used extensively throughout.

Despite the fact that the "cover" price of $2.99 per issue represents a discount off the cover price, some early reviewers of the app have panned it as still too expensive. Frankly, anything other than free will get negative reviews on iTunes, so I'm not sure these complaints are valid.

But the pricing does reflect a decision (I believe) to go after single issue buyers, rather than subscribers.

Time magazine's initial app release, on the other hand, seem completely devoid of any decision at all. By releasing the app as a stand-along app that had the same price as the printed edition, the magazine was basically holding their hands up and exclaiming "we have no clue, let's just see how this plays out". Then, a couple of weeks ago, they switched gears and made the app free, with the $4.99 price to be paid within the app itself. No matter, the reaction was the same: "No wonder journalism is in trouble" wrote one reviewer. "I think this price is absolutely crazy! I will not pay that for Time weekly. That adds up to be a whopping $259.48 a year," wrote another.

What both moves probably tell us, though, is that despite the nice words written by the editors, the business folk still see these iPad apps as having very little impact on their publications. Rather than trying to build readership, they would rather get some additional paid readers one at a time through the apps. Newsweek's position seems to be that charging full price is a loser, while Time is leery to discount their product in any way for fear of cannibalizing their newsstand sales.

In other words, the iPad is seen not as a distribution device like the post office where yearly subscriptions are discounted in order to encourage regular reading, but is seen as another form of the newsstand, where readers are lured in one by one, issue by issue.

Personally, I prefer the approach being taken by Jeff Price over at Sporting News, with their daily digital product that is being produced with Zinio, Sporting News Today. For a very reasonable (actually, almost too reasonable) of $2.99, a reader gets a full month worth of issues delivered each morning to their tablet (or read online). The reason for the very low price may have to do with the fact that the daily product used to be found online for free. So putting the minimal price on the product may be an attempt to avoid losing too many of their regular readers.

In the end, publishers are going to continue to experiment with pricing structures, so knowing which will idea will work -- looking at the iPad as an extension of the newsstand, or something more akin to regular delivery -- may be a matter of time, as well as a reflection of the value of the publication.

As to whether Jon Meatham will continue to guide these initial tablet efforts will depend on the outcome of the bids submitted to the Washington Post Company. Both Ritchie Capital Management LLC and private-equity firm OpenGate Capital LLC have expressed interest in submitting bids. Others who may bid include Meacham himself, real estate magnate Mort Zuckerman, Politico, Reuters and others.

The black book must be ugly, though: ad revenue has declined 30 percent in the last year, and the magazine lost $2.3 million in the last quarter. That means prospective buyers will have to either want the publication for reasons other than financial, or are willing to scrap the old business model and pursue a new one.

New York investment bank firm Allen & Co. are handling the sale.