Online-only is Growing Trend for Magazine Publishing

Magazines used to exist solely in a printed format and purchased at physical newsstands.

Today, most such publications have digital incarnations. But some newer ones never were and never will be printed. These also sometimes are bought at newsstands — the digital kind, that is, installed as content-organizing apps on smartphones and tablets.

Offline Magazine, launching as a monthly this week, is such a digital-exclusive publication being offered via Apple’s Newsstand app. It is vying with a growing number of other digital magazines to find a new generation of readers who mainly use tablets and smartphones to peruse the written word.

Offline, co-founded by Brad Flaugher of Minneapolis, also offers its five monthly articles in audio format, narrated by professionals. This gives subscribers the option to use their eyes if they are on their recliners in their dens, or their ears if they are on their morning commutes — with the content streams always kept in sync.

“We wanted to give readers value for their money,” Flaugher said. “Anyone can publish five articles a month” in text-only form.

Offline also is attempting to break fresh ground in how it pays its writers. This is done in the form of a percentage — typically 10 percent of what the editions containing their writing pull in. The more it sells, the more they get, giving the writers an incentive to promote their own work and, by extension, Offline.

“We can bring them in as partners, and market (Offline) together,” Flaugher said.

Offline’s long-term prospects are uncertain in an electronic-publishing market that has seen highly visible flops — such as News Corp’s online-only newspaper The Daily, which ceased operations in in December 2012 — and other e-publications that endure but don’t yet thrive.

One of them, The Magazine, has attained a high profile since its founding by Web developer Marco Arment in October 2012. He sold off the Apple Newsstand fortnightly magazine to his executive editor, Glenn Fleishman, in June.

Fleishman has since made the nerd-friendly magazine a buzzing endeavor with some of the biggest names in geekdom as contributors, publishing partnerships with the famed Medium and Boing Boing sites, and a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to commission a first-year print volume at roughly its halfway point with about two weeks to go.

But Fleishman still only calls The Magazine “an experiment.

“I would say it is sustainable, but we aren’t growing, and that makes it an experiment and not a business model,” he said. “I’m enjoying myself, paying writers, doing good work, but we need to be a bit bigger for me to bring all the pieces into play that I want to.”

Selling subscriptions is “a hard sell,” he added, “and Apple is not currently making it easy. The Newsstand (app) has turned into a bit of a mess.”

In addition to a number of technical issues hindering e-magazine publishers, the Newsstand app also has been a disappointment for Flaugher and others because of recent design changes Apple has made.

The app icon used to be anchored on iOS-devices’ home screens, but can now be tucked out of sight in a folder. Some users like this but publishers hate it. They also hate that the Newsstand icon has a generic look instead of displaying tiny thumbnail icons of the latest magazine issues, as it used to do.

Electronic-magazine publishing via Apple’s Newsstand has become a common approach for news-related sites like The Huffington Post, Cult of Mac and The Next Web, which offers a technology-flavored magazine it calls Shift.

Jim Dalrymple, the veteran technology writer focused on Apple topics, recently launched a magazine offshoot of his popular site The Loop.

Dalrymple seems more accepting of Newsstand than most.

“Newsstand is like a traditional newsstand at a corner of a city where you can buy multiple magazines all organized for you,” he said. “It does have the feel of traditional magazines. People are OK with that. It’s familiar to them.”

It’s compelling content and not tech-cool delivery mechanisms that will determine whether such readers will stick with any magazine, Dalrymple acknowledges.

For some magazines, print is the future and not the past. Newsweek, which famously went digital-only in October, now plans to offer a print edition again — though it reportedly will be exclusively for subscribers and won’t appear on any street-corner newsstands.

Magazines like The Loop, The Magazine and Offline, meanwhile, have a potential hurdle in that they are all vying for roughly the same intellectually curious, tech-savvy audience with their articles on a rich range of topics.

Offline’s Flaugher, who founded the magazine with friend and fellow London School of Economics alumnus Tom Smith of San Francisco, said his offering has an edge due to its superior technology, including its audio.


(c)2013 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

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