Marko Karppinen, one of the folks behind the Maggio publishing platform, says that it no longer makes sense for publishers to use Apple’s Newsstand to feature their magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals. The advantages, he writes, have disappeared slowly and, in iOS 7, no longer outweigh the downsides that bury a publication app within Newsstand.
This ultimately affects all iOS users, because publications have to remain financially viable, and anything that jeopardizes their ability to attract and keep subscribers makes it harder for apps to be kept up to date and stay in operation.
As the owner and editor of The Magazine, I took notice when Karppinen’s essay appeared. Marco Arment founded The Magazine in October 2012. I came on as executive editor later that month, and purchased it from him in June 2013. We celebrated its first anniversary of fortnightly publication with our 27th issue last week.
Newsstand is both a periodical-only portion of the App Store and its own freestanding, unremovable folder in iOS. It includes apps that produce an issue-format publication at least quarterly. In his post, Karppinen delineates eight behaviors that Apple confers on Newsstand apps.
Of these, some are positive, such as being included in the Newsstand section of the App Store, updating screenshots at will (instead of only with new releases), providing an Atom feed to update Newsstand information automatically, and providing free trials (which aren’t available for other iOS apps).
The additional chances for discovery from appearing in both the Newsstand section of the App Store and in another category (The Magazine app also appears in the Lifestyle section) are indeed important, especially as the number of publications has ballooned. When Marco launched The Magazine as one of the first digital-only and independent Newsstand periodicals, we received disproportionate attention and thus a higher rate of subscriptions. We continue to get featured regularly by gross sales, which surely helps with people discovering us. Newcomers will have an increasing trouble being found, and that double listing helps.
But other Newsstand features are less clearly useful, such as using a cover as the app’s icon. Shrinking a traditional magazine cover to icon size works poorly, but isn’t necessary. For The Magazine, Marco and the designers he worked with at Pacific Helm — notably Louie Mantia, who has designed every cover — avoided that trap. Our covers rely on images that play well at every size, including our first-anniversary cover.
Newsstand apps can also include automatically renewing in-app subscriptions, but that feature isn’t exclusive to Newsstand apps. Plus, although Newsstand apps offer automatic background content downloading once a day, that feature has now become available to any app in iOS 7, removing one of the key advantages of Newsstand.
On the downside, publications are hidden away inside the Newsstand app, and it has gotten worse in iOS 7. It’s largely because of this beef that Karppinen says that his company will no longer recommend publishers use Newsstand, and will instead suggest building standalone apps.
In iOS 5 and 6, there were at least microscopic previews; in iOS 7, the generic Newsstand icon eliminates the previews and the “shelves” inside are neither skeuomorphic nor well-designed. When I saw this new look during the iOS 7 beta period, I assumed it was a placeholder that would be fixed before release.
And, Karppinen points out, an app that starts as a Newsstand app cannot become a regular one, but the opposite is true, should publishers find that a standalone app doesn’t give them what they need.
Apple designed Newsstand to prevent users’ home screens from filling with publications, and to make sure there was a distinction between a periodical app and a regular one to reinforce the expectation of updated content. Those seem like laudable goals, but users can just as easily create and check their own folders, which do a better job of displaying shrunken icons of the apps inside than Newsstand in iOS 7.
Put bluntly, Newsstand is a ghetto. Readers complain to me regularly about forgetting to read The Magazine, even though we use iOS notifications for each issue. If readers don’t read immediately and don’t remember to tap the Newsstand icon later, they forget about us entirely.
There’s another element that Karppinen didn’t mention. Monthly auto-renewals result in an email reminder before every renewal period — every month! — telling subscribers that they have time to cancel. While I don’t want to fool anyone into renewing automatically, we have also heard from readers who canceled because they simply hate receiving the reminder month after month. We added a yearly subscription option a few months ago partly for that reason — and to reward people who want to stick with us; it’s $20 a year versus $2 a month. A quarterly or semi-annual reminder might be enough. (For subscriptions that originate through our Web site, we use Stripe for credit-card processing and have configured our account to send out a receipt for each charge, rather than a reminder beforehand.)
Strangely, Apple makes it difficult to find where in the App Store app and in iTunes to turn off auto-renewals; Marco put a big button in our app’s Settings screen that jumps users right to it to avoid the perception that we were trying to hide cancellation controls. (Cancellation itself is also confusing: you disable auto-renewal by flipping an On switch to Off, and the subscription lasts to the end of the current billing period.)
Apple made Newsstand the preferred and sensible destination for periodicals when it was launched. It is much less so in iOS 7, and the current experience is worse both for readers trying to find the publications to which they subscribe and for publishers trying to keep and serve their subscribers. I hope Apple turns its attention once again to trying to make iOS the leading edge for digital periodicals, one of the company’s great promises years ago, and one that has yet to be fulfilled.