The Magazine is shutting down. Created by Marco Arment and taken over in May 2013 by Glenn Fleishman, The Magazine was a pioneer, thinking different about digital magazines. Initially inspired by Arment’s Instapaper, it stripped things back, emphasising content in a manner that chimed with an audience tired of ad-infested websites and poor digital magazine user experiences.
It turns out whatever The Magazine was doing isn’t enough; although it’s been profitable throughout its entire life (extremely rare for any publication), subscriber numbers continue to fall, to the point Fleishman believes the magazine will eventually not be sustainable. Better to go out with a kind of controlled bang than gradually sink into quicksand.
There are undoubtedly all sorts of reasons why The Magazine is closing, some of which are explored in a Cult of Mac interview with Fleishman, but Newsstand seems to be key, having transformed from a well of potential into an empty bucket of pain as far as publishers are concerned. Jim Dalrymple, editor of The Loop, pointedly commented: “Apple should just admit that they don’t give a shit about digital magazines and be done with it.”
He’s right. At one time, Newsstand was touted as Apple redefining magazines, saving an industry in serious decline. In iOS 5 and 6, it resembled iBooks, in being both an app and store, but also used a custom folder to showcase cover images, making new issues very visible. This was irksome for those who didn’t use Newsstand, left with an empty wooden shelf (as ever, Apple could really do with enabling you to disable unused default apps), but handy for publishers and readers alike.
As of iOS 7, Newsstand was overhauled to fit in with Apple’s philosophy of flat design. The icon became a generic picture of four publications, and you now have to tap this to view magazine covers. So instead of a custom folder, Newsstand now has a strange ‘apps within an app’ set-up that doesn’t really seem to benefit anyone. This also means Newsstand now behaves like other iOS apps, in that it can be stashed in a folder. Visibility of new magazine issues has been seriously hit; coupled with this, ongoing abuse of system notifications has led to many disabling them, closing off another avenue for alerting readers about new issues.
Fleishman himself reasons that these changes “did not help [The Magazine] thrive”, and he’s far from alone. In 2011, publishers were full of hope regarding Newsstand; now, pretty much every one of them I know hates it. They think Apple’s practically abandoned Newsstand and just doesn’t care — it’s turned into an afterthought product Apple feels it must have rather than one it wants to keep evolving as part of the core iOS experience.
Perhaps magazines are simply doomed—digital or otherwise. Maybe people just don’t want to pay for content bundles and either want free websites, churn-based humour on Buzzfeed, or some kind of system where they can self-edit and cherry-pick what they think they’ll like (rather than possibly discovering something new). But while some kind of magazine industry does still exist, it’d be great for Apple to do more than turn Newsstand into the publication equivalent of Stocks. Maybe iOS 8.1 should silently admit Newsstand is a failed experiment, and simply remove it entirely. Put individual magazines back on the Home screen as standard apps, with (standard-sized) icons developers can update as and when a new issue goes live and standard alert badges, and therefore provide the flexibility that might reengage readers.