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How iOS 7’s Newsstand Hurts Publishers

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.


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Comments about How iOS 7’s Newsstand Hurts Publishers
(Comments are closed.)

This article is completely one-sided.
I love Newstand and have 10 subscriptions there. I love how all my magazines are automatically organised all with timely updates and the latest covers. I wouldn't want it any other way.

The subscription reminder e-mail is a must for me, I shouldn't spend my time tracking which ones are going to charge me next and when. That's why I abandoned regular subscriptions in the first place!

While I usually respect the author's writing and work, here he did a terrible job finding out if there were reasons that people - users, not publishers - actually preferred Newstand to bespoke magazine functionality on top of regular apps.
Maybe focus less on the (surely fewer) users who complain and ask satisfied users what they like about it.

Also if you think you'll have _more_ visibility amongst general apps, well I have a bridge to sell you.

Now about renewing my The Magazine subscription... maybe time to reconsider.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-10-16 12:08
I have had so many requests from readers to be able to put The Magazine on their home screen, I've lost count. But I would never suggest abolishing the Newsstand or not allowing publications to be put into a folder. Rather, let users choose.

I understand your point about the reminder email: with our Stripe setup on the Web site, we send a receipt, and I gladly refund a subscription for anyone who asks. We also have a two-click cancellation: click Cancel, then confirm, and it's done.

But this isn't a reported story: this is my reaction, as a publisher, from feedback from many hundreds of subscribers who have emailed over the months, as to the flexibility people tell me they want.

I don't want to fool anyone into renewing; I do want to reduce the friction people have in subscribing and staying subscribed.

I didn't even get into Apple's inflexible pricing. For instance, I cannot offer a 7-day free trial for a yearly subscription, only a 30-day free trial (so I omitted any free trial for yearly subscribers).

I'm sorry that my attitude about being able to run a subscription-based, no-advertising publication in a sustainable way bothered you so much that it puts you off the content.
Steven Fisher  2013-10-17 20:08
I completely agree with you about periodicals belonging in Newsstand. I love my periodicals, but I have no desire to let them out of there.

Maybe if I subscribed to more of them, I'd want to organize it better, but I don't.
Good read, in regards to ' forgetting to read' because a publication is in newsstand. I have had both newstand and non NS magazines and both, I have found equally forgetting to read. Those 'pesky' apple renewal emails though tiring, do remind me that I have a magazine I need to read. In of itself it is not a newsstand problem but having a busy schedule that I forget to read. Removing magazines from Newstand will actually make it worse ( for me at least ) because; as the previous comment alluded to, it will be one of many colorful icons on my screens. At least newstand provides that 'accidental' discovery in its dedicated folder when viewing/searching for other subscriptions. While people may say they forget to read due to The app being in newsstand, is a fallacy. I agree, there maybe more apple can do beyond notifications to engage the user, maybe it is a location, time aware notification that knows I am home and therefore sitting down and may enjoy a good read.
M. Perry  2013-10-17 07:54
Those lower down the chain try, but Apple's upper-management isn't into anything that involves words or ideas.

* You see that in the text features of OS X, hardly changed since 10.2.

* You see it in how long it has taken to port the iBooks app to OS X and then only for Mavericks.

* You see it in their ridiculous 30% in-app purchase charge, which mostly targets those who sell books.

I suspect there are other cultural factors, but the primary root of the problem lies in the mid-1990s, when Apple was finding it increasingly difficult to see Macs to people who work with words or numbers. As a result, they marketed themselves for young people at play, dancing to music and snapping pictures in lives that seem a perpetual vacation. For illustrations, see any Apple ad.

From that perspective, even magazines are a low priority. They're about words and pictures when for Apple their typical customers are twenty-somes who bounce about, never thinking or reflecting.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-10-21 20:43
The 30% fee is universal and absurd. It probably made sense when it bundled together marketing, customer service, credit-card fees, and other overhead, plus a premium, when it was apps only. But in-app purchases of media items, subscriptions, etc., are insane at 30%. 10%, maybe.
Apple's typical customer in the 90s was either a creative professional or educator/student. They've dumped the features for artists like me, so finally, I broke down and bought a peecee--and two Android tablets--and two Symbian phones.

The flexibility that was so compelling in Apple products up to around 2004, is almost completely gone. I feel stifled. I hate having to use command line to reveal the features that were common before that. Even more, it's insulting that Apple glues its hardware together, or uses proprietary screws and connectors. We don't have time to send our computers and devices out for repair, but can't easily open most just to change a PRAM/BIOS battery or swap out a drive. I hate my iMac, but like the OS, although the OS is declining fast.

Windows 8 is looking better now that I have a touch screen notebook. Apple sure has changed for the worse in the past few years, but it was pretty annoying when I worked for them too.
Lawrence Smith  2013-10-21 15:09
And then there are those of us who are sick and tired of the standalone-app-for-each-destination model. They seldom get used on my iPhone and iPad. With rare exceptions, give me the browser model any day.

One step further. Any app or site that has a crippled mobile version [they're almost all crippled] MUST have a choice to see a full desktop version. This includes both apps and browser web sites.

Most apps are a lame version of the browser model anyway. Why am I stuck with the same interface on a tablet as on a phone??? Stupid.
Jules Black  2013-10-21 18:21
Re: skeuomorphism: I never understood the rationale for the dumbing down of the icons in iOS7. I thought the icons looked really classy (like the bookshelf, and newsstand), in keeping with the classiness of Apple products, but now I find them very plain. Is it that the 3D icons were memory hogs or what??
I'm beginning to feel that it's a good thing that my iPod Touch and iPad can't effectively be 'upgraded' to iOS 7. iOS 6 does almost everything that iOS 7 does except with less memory and a more attractive interface and icons.

Does Apple do any test marketing on features like text that's so narrow and lacking in contrast that it's almost unreadable?

I don't see the need for 'Newsstand' when I can read periodicals in a browser or put their apps in a folder. How many periodicals do users read in 'Newsstand' to make it worthwhile? I read a lot, without 'Newsstand' and see no reason to change that. Is there a command line way to delete that app? It won't even hide in a folder with all the other apps I never use but can't delete.
Jabar Hamid  2013-10-22 22:43
"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."

Is "The Magazine" available on Androids? Though incrementally updated over the years, iOS is basically a 2007 concept and I laugh when I see iPhone screens all jam packed with icons and folders of even teensier icons. It's, in a word, ugly. At least on Androids you can have any icons you want on any of a number of home screens. And with the wonderful Multicon app, you can make 4 icons fit in the space of 1.
BruceH  2013-10-23 10:43
I completely agree with the article. I find it laughable that any old fart app can have pride of place on the home screen but that serious papers *must* be buried.