Like a lot of technology projects, The Magazine started out as an experiment: could a well-executed digital magazine attract enough paying readers to exist as a business? A year later, we spoke to its editor and owner to find out.
Glenn Fleishman, who took over The Magazine from creator Marco Arment, didn’t intend to be a media mogul. But these days, Fleishman finds himself busy planning what’s next for what is arguably the most (perhaps only?) celebrated tablet-native publication out there.
“I think you have to have an obsession to make certain kinds of things work,” says Fleishman. “I had a very successful blog on Wi-Fi for a decade because I got obsessed by Wi-Fi and I wrote about it incessantly. That’s how I see The Magazine too: I’m obsessed about this particular form.”
By this, Fleishman means the particular variety of long-form, narrative-heavy journalism in which the The Magazine specializes: lengthy, thoughtful and artfully-composed essays and reported pieces that aren’t necessarily about technology, but that “tickle the same part of the brain,” as he puts it.
Editorially, it has the feel of an esteemed print magazine. Its format is anything but print-like. Not only is The Magazine a digital publication, but it lacks many of the characteristics of other tablet magazines brought to market by publishers whose primary business is paper-based. Thus, its icon doesn’t try to replicate a cover designed for display on real-world newsstands. Each new issue isn’t a 500 MB download.
You can even highlight the text in each article, since the minimally designed app uses HTML-based text and embedded images rather than delivering a bloated, glorified PDF originally designed for an entirely different use case. The app’s simplicity, refreshing as it is, can leave the reader wishing for more print-inspired design flourishes or perhaps a dab of interactivity.
The Magazine is the poster child of what digital publishing guru Craig Mod calls “subcompact publishing,” which forgoes the bloated, illogically skeuomorphic approach of most legacy publishers’ tablet offerings in favor of something much simpler: Compact issue sizes, smaller downloads, proportional prices, HTML text and a general Web-friendliness. Scroll, don’t paginate. Design navigations that don’t require explanatory diagrams. Essentially, everything the “digital editions” of most print magazines are not.
One year out, Fleishman seems less fixated on the format and more concerned with content. There are certainly improvements he’d like to make to the app and its Web-based counterpart, but the real excitement in his voice comes when he talks about stories. He’s proud of the publication’s depth: the generous time he gives writers, the occasional travel expenses paid and rates that rival print publications (and would make most Web editors blush). For Fleishman, the focus is on quality. And as high as that quality already is, he’s eager to boost it by paying writers more, giving them more space to write and eventually bringing on full-time staff.
Even with a flood of early subscribers and serious tech press cred, the economics of tablet publishing remain tricky. Just ask Rupert Murdoch, whose ambitious, Steve Jobs-supported foray into iPad-only publishing flopped after less than two years. The Magazine may be profitable (and thus able to pay its talent reasonably well), but maintaining subscriber growth is seldom an easy thing, especially in a digital ecosystem whose consumers are still be reconditioned to pay for written content. And while a digital publication may be free of economic burdens like printing presses and delivery trucks, coding apps ain’t exactly free.
“The biggest problem is having enough money to fund software development,” says Fleishman, who is quick to point out that he inherited the business from a bona fide iOS developer (a unique advantage worth noting, especially for other publishers hoping to mine The Magazine’s backstory for success tips). Without Arment’s coding ability at its beck and call, The Magazine must rely on developers at an outside firm called Aged & Distilled to keep the product evolving. Their rates are reasonable, Fleishman insists, but coding takes time and testing.
“If I were starting this business, I’d have to go out and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and budget six to nine months,” Fleishman says. “You would never start a business like The Magazine with one app. You would start a platform business like 29th Street Publishing or TypeEngine. It doesn’t make sense to put, say, $300,000 into app development to make one publication unless you knew you could get hundreds of thousands of subscribers.”
The creation of The Magazine had an auspicious start. Buoyed by the success of his pioneering read-stuff-later app Instapaper, Tumblr cofounder Marco Arment saw a digital magazine as a natural adjacency to his bookmarking tool. His attempt, an iOS-only periodical targeting a geeky audience with five long-form articles every two weeks, reached profitability one week. In May 2013, Arment sold The Magazine to Fleishman, who had been editing it since the second issue. As it turned out, Arment–a serial builder of remarkably useful Web and mobile products–had little interest in being a full-time magazine editor. Fleishman, on the other hand, was born for this kind of stuff.
The same economic constraints that would have prevented a non-developer from launching The Magazine on iOS threaten to hold it back from ever seeing the light of the day on Android. It’s a reality cash-strapped publishers everywhere know all too well: Developing an app is very expensive.
On iOS, The Magazine remains profitable, despite thinning its own margins by doubling its payout to writers and layering on more editorial oversight. The app may owe much of its early success to Arment’s tech geek star power, but the continued quality of the product has kept it economically sustainable. It helps that Apple has invested in marketing the iPad as a device for reading, actively courting publishers since day one.
Android is another story. It may have a massive user base, but those users are, on the whole, less willing to pay for content than people who carry around iPads and iPhones. As a result, launching an Android version–usually the next order of business for any successful iOS app–is relatively low on Fleishman’s list of priorities.
“If I could see examples of publications with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers in Android, I would be figuring out how to budget and make that happen,” says Fleishman. “To my knowledge, there are no great success stories of people getting people to pay for a subscription on Android.”
For The Magazine, HTML5 has not been a savior. Android users (not to mention those on Windows or any other modern platform) can access The Magazine in all its glory from the browser, complete with a Web-based, non-Apple subscription payment form. But a look at the site’s analytics reveal that very few Android-based devices are being used to read The Magazine from its website. This is largely a problem of marketing and exposure. When the site first launched, it merely previewed the contents of the iOS app, which was the only way to read everything in full. Any Android tablet owners among the initial flood of post-launch visitors likely hit that wall and never came back. More importantly, there’s something to be said for being featured prominently in Apple’s App Store. Without similar placement in Google Play, The Magazine remains just another website in a vast sea of websites.
Instead of launching an Android app, The Magazine’s sights will instead be set on the oldest platform of all: Print. Using Kickstarter to raise funds, Fleishman plans to publish a printed anthology of some of The Magazine’s best work to date.
“We’ve got this big audience of people who say, ‘I like what you do. Could you give it to me in a more compact format?'” Fleishman explains. “So we go to Kickstarter and we find all the people who were subscribers in the past and all the folks who were overwhelmed by quantity and say, ‘We have curated this even further. Here’s a discrete thing you can buy and read at multiple sittings and hold in your hands.'”
The irony isn’t lost on Fleishman. While legacy publishers are clamoring to stake out a digital position in a purportedly post-print world, here’s a tablet-first publication following exactly the opposite route. The difference is that The Magazine isn’t printing every two or four weeks. If the experiment works, print will merely serve as a rare (annual, probably) supplement to The Magazine’s biweekly digital publishing schedule.
Fleishman recently forged a content partnership with Boing Boing, which will put select pieces from The Magazine in front of the blog’s massive audience. Next up, he plans on launching a public radio-style podcast (a format with which Fleishman is already well-acquainted) in which writers discuss their subjects and tell stories.
“I’ve got all of these different ideas, some of which cost money, many of which just require time,” says Fleishman. “I don’t want 10 different publications at the same time. That’s not really my speed. I don’t want to build an empire. There’s a lot of people out there building empires. I’m not the Nick Denton of micropublishing.”