Are Magazine Apps Dead? A State of the Art Roundtable

Just a little under four years ago I headed down to St. Petersburg, Florida for an iPad conference at the Poynter Institute hosted and organized by Mario Garcia. A small but very engaged group of newspaper, magazine, and digital designers gathered to see and hear reports on the very first wave of app creations. My iPad had just arrived from Apple the day before and was still fresh in its box, and I spent a lot of the conference busily downloading apps from a wide array of publications (remember how long those downloads used to take?). It was a heady and exciting moment, and almost everyone at that conference left to go home and launch new, groundbreaking app projects across a wide variety of styles and platforms.

I used the experience of Mario’s conference to talk my way into a job at Reader’s Digest, helping to launch their magazine app, and later another for Best Health, a related magazine published in Toronto. There were iPad conferences, workshops, case studies that were published in design magazines and websites, and it seemed like everybody was working on an app project.

Not anymore. We’ve come a long way since a top creative director breathlessly told me that “the iPad is the biggest thing to happen to magazines since the printing press.” And while some magazines continue to publish exciting, engaging iPad editions — National Geographic, Esquire, Popular Mechanics, and Bon Appetit are doing top-notch work — for many the rich, textural digital versions filled with original content and experiences have devolved into what are essentially flat replicas. Readers and especially magazine makers have failed to embrace the new magazine apps in large (or even medium) numbers. I was recently with a roomful of top magazine editors and creative directors at the National Magazine Awards and it was apparent that none of them had a passion or sense of engagement with apps; iPad magazines simply were not an essential part of their world.

What went wrong? Are iPad apps dead, or do they still have a bright future? I reached out for answers to some of the smartest magazine makers I know, folks who have been active in creating dynamic editorial products on multiple platforms, from print magazines to daily newspapers to websites. And of course, they’ve all been integral in the development of some memorable magazine app projects. I asked them about the lack of enthusiasm for apps, how the production system has affected app creation, and whether there’s a future for digital magazines on the tablet platform.

Here’s what they had to say.

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The Panel:

Dr. Mario R. García has worked on more than 650 media design projects as the CEO and founder of García Media. His last app project was the Kronen HD iPad app for the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung.

David Jacobs is the CEO of 29th Street Publishing. Their most recent app was Radio Silence.

Josh Klenert is Executive Director in the Digital Customer Experience team for JPMorgan Chase. Prior to that he was Vice President, Design & UX for The Huffington Post Media Group and served as the creative director for Huffington magazine app. His latest app project was Huffington magazine and the redesigns of the HuffPost news apps for iOS7 and Android.

Jeremy Leslie‘s London-based magCulture studio designs editorial projects for print and digital publication. He also blogs, writes and speaks about editorial design (read more at His latest iPad project is the Frieze magazine app; he also designed online publishing project Aeon.

Joe Zeff is president of Joe Zeff Design, a boutique studio that designs and develops apps for corporations, universities and publishers. His latest app is Spies of Mississippi: The Appumentary. Prior to that, Joe Zeff Design created the official Super Bowl XLVIII app for the National Football League.

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A lot of people are very cynical about the current state of magazine apps based on print editions. “The app is dead” is something I hear a lot, amid complaints that they’ve been replaced by an endless series of flat replicas, designed in a one-size-fits-all format. Do you agree with this? Or are you still optimistic about the future of magazine apps, and think there is lots of creative work ahead?

Josh Klenert: I would not say the app is dead, but it might have a bullet wound to the leg. It’s probably not been the silver bullet that the magazine industry hoped for 3+ years ago. There is certainly some great work being done in the space, but the scale and audience is just not there and that has a lot to do with replicating the production cycle of a print magazine. A digital product that only updates once a month is a relic. A lot of what was done in wave 1 of app magazines ignored the lessons of web over the last 20+ years. I am incredibly optimistic about magazine-like storytelling on digital devices, but binding them to print production cycles in monolithic downloads must evolve. I think that’s why we’re starting to see lots of robust feature-length stories told directly on the web in responsive web packaging.

David Jacobs: I don’t think it’s fair to say the app is dead – rather the app was never alive. (This question nearly answers itself!) What we have learned is that the replica will never be successful. Consumers have soundly rejected them: digital subscriptions make up only 3% of total subscriptions. But I am of course optimistic about the future of magazine apps, since the industry has an opportunity for a reboot. There is a challenge (and an opportunity) since the mainstream conception of a magazine app is what amounts to a photo gallery of pages of a magazine, with the occasional widget or animation. But that’s not a transformation that is going to happen overnight.

Joe Zeff: I wouldn’t say that magazine apps are dead, but that they are in dire need of a transfusion. I continue to be optimistic because there’s no stopping the proliferation of tablets. There will continue to be a market for applications built specifically for these devices. The industry needs to shift its focus toward brand extension. Let’s face it, if consumers can get the same content in their mailbox, newsstand and browser, there’s little justification for downloading a 250-megabyte magazine. Instead, excite them with new products that come to life on tablets: experiential content, utility applications, multimedia delivered offline. The going rate for a digital magazine is zero, as publishers have made them free with print subscriptions. The average price for an iBook is $9. There lies an opportunity to monetize content — one of many.

Mario García: I am optimistic, first of all. I think the state of magazine design for tablets is still in its infancy. It has not helped that the economic climate for publishers has not been up to par with the ambitions of editors and designers. Having said that, there is much that could have been done already, three years after the first iPads rolled out of the Apple factory. We still see a lot of static, turn-the-page-type of magazine apps. We need to begin to look at the tablet’s peculiarities, to what it can do, and then exploit that. It is not a print publication per se. It is a combination of book, film documentary, a little TV, some radio. It is multisensory, and we have not explored that fully yet. It is also the closest we can come, so far, to a digital experience that matches a lot of the intuitive movements that we are familiar with via print.

Jeremy Leslie: I’m very disappointed by the current state of magazine apps, but it’s not as black and white as you portray; we’re still only at the beginning of a longer experiment in the form. The initial excitement across the industry, from publishers and creatives, has subsided as the reality of making apps hit home. From a business point of view the promise of easily slipping app production into the print workflow was foolishly naive, while editors and designers who were keen to experiment soon found themselves stretched too thin. On top of this, sales have been disappointing so most apps have reverted to simpler replicas as a holding pattern while publishers work out next steps.

Whether or not paid apps downloaded to tablets is the way forward for editorial content remains to be seen. But what they have done is demonstrate to the print-is-dead fundamentalists that digital content can’t just be raw information. Instantaneous access to content is becoming the norm; we’re now seeing that the need for differentiation in digital presentation is becoming desirable. How does my content look different to my competitors? How will a subscriber distinguish The Guardian from The New York Times?

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What do you think of the current format and presentation of magazine apps? Do you think that the dominance of DPS as a production/creation tool has had a good or bad effect?

Joe Zeff: It’s easy to blame Adobe DPS for the spate of lookalike magazines; instead, I blame the publishers. They blindly followed AAM née ABC guidelines and created digital magazines that were hardly different from print. They prioritized customer retention over customer acquisition and focused on rate base expansion instead of new product development. They have failed to excite advertisers, blaming weak CPM numbers that could be strengthened by aggregating audiences through networks. As our projects at Joe Zeff Design have demonstrated again and again, DPS is a wonderful platform for launching new products that engage consumers. A la carte magazines, interactive modules, utility-based applications — they’re all possible today, thanks in part to Adobe DPS.

That’s not to say DPS couldn’t be better. The platform currently includes the ability to publish folio content to Adobe’s proprietary web viewer. Most DPS features work fine; there remain issues with scaling and swiping. If publishers could push more dynamic experiences to the web, they could reach larger audiences with app-like content and better address the opportunity to sell interactive advertising.

Josh Klenert: DPS has its pros and cons, but it’s not the only solution for publishing a magazine app. If building your own app is not a solution there are plenty of other options out there including PRSS, DShare, Mag+, and Readymag.

Jeremy Leslie: DPS served a vital role kick starting publishers into thinking about app editions, but in the longer term has proved to be a misdirection. I’m sure most of us remember opening early editions of the Wired app on which DPS was modeled. Hugely exciting, but absurdly over-promising. What budget and resource did the Wired team have for those issues? (And why are those first issues unavailable to view today?) DPS sold itself as a plug-in for InDesign, something easily assimilated into the workflow, but its central conceptual link to the printed page is flawed. It was the result of a rushed development to meet the iPad launch and has served the industry poorly since. But it has had a domino effect on publishers and their HTML developers. Snowfall and other attempts at web-based long form editorial design have been encouraged by apps.

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Why have readers failed to embrace magazine apps in the numbers that we all once hoped? Is the problem the app format, the tablets, or something more fundamental?

David Jacobs: A lot of the thinking about how audiences work on the Internet is flawed. For years, the thinking was “all audiences are moving on-line.” OK, that’s an interesting assertion! So what happened? Websites rebuilt themselves to be better clients for Google, and then again to be better clients for Facebook and Twitter, and now we are seeing the beginnings of that happening again – for folks to be more like Buzzfeed and Upworthy. This is an incremental improvement – Buzzfeed and Upworthy both advertise their empathy for users as a cornerstone for what they believe in.

But overall, the way audiences behave on-line (and on mobile) is much less predictable than anyone thought it would be. Successful products focus on accessibility, experience and flexibility.  Traditionally, mobile magazines have fallen down on all three of those. By the way, print magazines, especially this most recent generation of independent magazines, completely understand this and take advantage of it. Start-up publishers are taking advantage of social networks to find their ideal audience and then sending them beautiful print products. And it’s a great experience flipped around, too – as a reader and a fan of magazines, the joy of searching for (and finding) a new print magazine is not something the average tablet experience can touch.

Mario García: I think the readers will come around.  I wish I knew why they have not flocked to magazine apps in greater numbers and with greater passion. But this is a matter of time. I repeat that this is a genre in its infancy. But I also admit, that magazine apps must make themselves so unique and interesting that readers will realize they cannot go without them. The flat and static ones that abound are not going to do the job, except that they are more portable, than, let’s say a 401-page edition of the printed Vanity Fair.

Josh Klenert: We’ve learned over the last 20 years of publishing on the web, that to gain scale you need to leverage search and social to build an audience. It’s not true that “if you build it, they will come.” The same is true for apps. Right now, they are a destination. If a user connects with your brand, they will come, consume, and hopefully return. For example, with our HuffPost news app, we see that it’s a destination that sees more page views per visitor versus mobile web, but mobile web sees more unique users. But this is for a news product that is updated hundreds of times a day, not a weekly or monthly publication that lands with a thud. Those weekly/monthly publications then just sit in the Newsstand collecting dust in between updates while users move on to products that embrace the always-connected digital platform; ones that simply provide more stuff more often. I certainly don’t think you can blame the tablets themselves. You can’t argue with the vast number of iPads or Android tablets sold or apps downloaded (and used), and it’s not the usability of the iPad either. How many times have you seen a two year old flawlessly zip around on an iPad?

Joe Zeff: At Joe Zeff Design we’re less enthusiastic about magazine-style apps as a broadcast medium; instead, we leverage their ability to narrowcast. We target specific audiences with specific content. Personalization is the next frontier; my own magazine should reflect my own interests, not just those of the masses. Whether that takes shape through browser-based or native applications, there’s an opportunity to blend curated, dynamic and social content to deliver unique experiences. Apps can make those experiences even more personalized by attaching that content to utility functions that interact with one’s calendar, photographs, contacts and preferences.

Jeremy Leslie: Tablets are great for watching movies, playing games, reading websites, checking emails, listening to music, tweeting, facebooking and answering questionnaires like this one. And now you’re saying that in addition to all these activities I have the option to spend money on a 350-meg download of a product that is better in print? The problem is fundamental (and reflected in Apple’s lack of interest in the magazine app. Abandon Newsstand!) An exception is as an alternative to physical distribution. If a print magazine is expensive and slow to arrive in a far-flung part of the world, an app is a great get-round. I designed the Frieze magazine app, and that’s their strategy.

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Who is creating exciting, dynamic magazine apps, and will we see more of them in the future?

David Jacobs: Obviously, I think our apps (29th Street Publishing) are the best. I would say, though, that we are 1 or 2% of where we have to be in terms of offering design flexibility and the user experience. DPS was necessary – it was a brute-force solution (and really a rather remarkable one) to get every title in the store and doing business. And for the last few years, from a business perspective, it’s basically a cool perk for print subscribers. The most successful stand-alone app has mid-four figure subscribers. But if you look at every other form of media – books, music, television, media, video games, it’s all gone majority mobile, and at some point this year may even go to 66%+ penetration for mobile. Magazines are still stuck in single-digits. So we can’t really say DPS was good or bad. It is dominant, but it’s dominant in a relatively small fishbowl. But what we’re allowed now is the chance to figure out what comes next. And DPS deserves credit for priming the pump.

Josh Klenert: National Geographic continues to do amazing multimedia storytelling and that ports to their magazine app really well. I really like how Esquire and The Atlantic have started to put out weekly editions. Popular Mechanics explodes every month with unique story telling devices. GQ & Time have been doing an amazing amount of incredible work in video. Just looking over the list of finalists for this years SPD Awards show how much awe-inspiring, vibrant, and creative work is being done in the digital medium.

Joe Zeff: Conde Nast has been the most forward-thinking publisher. Wired has been out front since Day One, creating new content for their tablet editions that make their apps feel special. The New Yorker and Vanity Fair have wonderful iPhone editions that combine smart design with sensible HTML programming. The company’s partnership with MasterCard to infuse magazines with e-commerce capability is a step in the right direction.

Mario García: I’m not so sure. I haven’t heard of many in the traditional magazine app mode that are doing interesting things lately. The most interesting apps for me are those trying to rethink the mobile news experience altogether: Circa, Breaking News, NYT Now, NowThis News. I am also interested in the few experiments in new packages of content (rather than adapting a printed magazine to the tablet), notably Esquire Weekly. The publications that are more able to experiment by breaking out of the confines of translating a printed page to digital are the most promising. (Thanks to García Media art director Reed Reibstein for assistance with this question.)

Jeremy Leslie: I think we’ve seen many apps shine brightly for an issue or two then fade. They take a huge investment in time and money for very little response from a skeptical public. DPS happens to work very well for The New Yorker — that magazine’s strength of vision meant it translated instantly to the tablet. It didn’t feel the need to add bells and whistles, it understood what it’s readers valued about its print edition — reading.

The only other app worth mentioning remains Letter to Jane; that app is the single one I’m aware of that sought to link content design and ux design to produce a simple intuitive and enjoyable experience. Some of Tim Moore’s other work at 29th Street Publishing shares his thoughts in this too, but the necessary templating restricts invention. Steve Gregor made clever use of DPS for an iPad edition of his Gym Class Magazine, hiding some of the clumsy nav tools. Other bespoke apps have made some interesting experiments, but are generally too reliant on video and animation and become heavy files — too long to download and too large to keep on your tablet.

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When the iPad and magazine apps were launched, there was a lot of enthusiasm in the art director world, but with the rise of replica apps, a lot of the initial energy has dissipated. Many people feel now that app work is basically production work. Is there a future for art directors who are interested in creating apps?

Mario García: I think that there are great possibilities for creative art directors, but I admit that those possibilities may still be greater, in terms of freedom with the canvas, in print.  Digital design can have a lot of creative input, but one must adapt to the realities of templates that facilitate production. It is, in my view, the quintessential 60% formula, 40% surprise. But the surprise element is there for the creative art director to explore and to enjoy with gusto.

Josh Klenert: Right now various business rules are probably getting in the way of products that are designed more for a digital medium than print. That said, we’re still in the early days and as we are still seeing with the web — the rules continue to change. I would not throw in the towel just yet. The cliché “change is the only constant” comes to mind. I lean towards digging in and being apart of this ongoing evolution. There is certainly still opportunity for exciting development — most likely stepping away from being bound so closely to print.

Joe Zeff: There is enormous potential for those with entrepreneurial spirit, as the playing field is flat. Large publishers have few advantages over individual designers when it comes to creating content for tablets. In fact, the burdens placed on publishers to support mulitplatform ubiquity give individuals and small studios a decisive edge. Our latest project, Spies of Mississippi: The Appumentary, started with a blank sheet of paper, not a mandate to create weekly or monthly issues on five different platforms. If you approach app work as production work, then that’s all it will be. If you approach apps as a way to deliver immersive, intuitive multitouch experiences that leverage the capabilities of tablet computers, you may just change the world.

Jeremy Leslie: We mustn’t let initial app production experience dilute the bigger message — the digital future for editorial designers is online. Well-designed digital editorial is inevitable, but probably won’t be apps.

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How will the magazine app publishing scene be different a year from now? Will we be having an “apps are back!” roundtable next year?

Josh Klenert: My best guess is that there will be bigger shifts on the business side that will allow for more scale. Platforms like Zinio, ISSUU, and Next Issue will reach massive scale with ecosystems to consume magazine content no matter where users are will thrive. Think of YouTube for videos. Videos can be watched on YouTube or be embedded anywhere. Publishing ecosystems that don’t allow for this will disappear.

Big publishers may go the way of the music industry and start to unbundle content (think singles vs. full albums) — possibly with a fremium model. Content a user consumes will become more passively personalized for the user. Its like adding elements of a personalized Flipboard-like experience which shows the content you are most interested in. For example, I read lots of movie reviews from Entertainment Weekly; well then I should start to see more entertainment content from Time appear in my magazine. I bookmark a story about summer suits in GQ; well then I should start to see more fashion content from Details appear. These apps need to ultimately become native to their digital platforms and evolve into utilities that people go to on a daily basis. In order to do this, like the web before it, the direct connection to a printed publication cycle needs to be broken.

David Jacobs: Next year — about the same. Maybe a 1.5x or 2x growth, with a few new hits by start-ups and established players alike. Hopefully a couple of our titles will be in the mix, but I think folks like Offline Magazine and the team at Glide are going to be pushing new titles as well.

If you think of the watershed apps, very few of them were anything considered replica. There are huge video games that are similar to the big Xbox & Playstation hits of the last decade, but the biggest hits are built with the iPhone in mind – touch-focused interface, playable in short bursts, quickly addictive. The same is true for albums like Beyoncé’s — a launch like hers (with videos for every song) wouldn’t have been possible with iTunes. She just couldn’t have pressed & shipped 10M DVDs without people getting a sniff of it. And I think we’re beginning to see the same sort of “on-line-first” release with TV and movies now as well. That’s possibly the best analogy to magazines. The DVD market was enormous (and still is), but all of the exciting art is happening in serialized dramas that are basically produced to be consumed later — not when and where it’s aired.

Mario García: A year from now? Perhaps we’ll see more of the multimedia storytelling (à la Snow Fall) that some newspapers are exploring come to magazine apps.”

Joe Zeff: The next generation of digital publications shifts control from the publisher to the consumer, allowing the consumer to determine what content they want and how and when they want to consume it. It’s time to rip the covers off of traditional magazines and deliver a la carte publications with a la carte advertising. Apps for phones and tablets can more readily access personal information than browsers, and that makes them a worthwhile platform for innovation. Personalized magazines combine content from all over through plug-and-play APIs — magazines, television, social feeds, Nest thermostats, Fitbit trackers, and bank statements. They are always in the right place at the right time, helping me to work, shop, decide and play. Done right, they become inextricable.

Whether that happens one or five years from now remains to be seen. But we need to keep moving in that direction in order to get there. We can’t and shouldn’t stop now.

Jeremy Leslie: I’d love to be able to respond positively here, but I think we’re closer to the “remember when we thought apps might be the saviour of publishing” reunion roundtable. And perhaps someone will bring a first gen iPad that hasn’t been synced for three years, and we can view those original Wired apps.

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If you have comments and thoughts on this topic, please email them to me at I’ll be happy to post any additional commentary.