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When Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPad it was hailed as a content consumption device. Most of the people that I know that own a tablet use it almost exclusively to consume content, not to create it. Despite the heavy emphasis on consumption, publishers have struggled to get smartphone and tablet owners to pay for content on their devices.
This struggle between publishers and readers is as old as the Internet. The Internet set a new standard for content with most websites publishing articles for free with ads lining the sides of the website. Eventually publishers used paywalls to force readers to pay for a subscription or a one time fee to read an article in its entirety. Readers who had become accustomed to free content moved on to other sources or looked for ways to get the article for free. The iPad was supposed to be the medium with which publishers would be able to charge for content again, but as Jason Pontin of Technology Review explains, the cost of app development and limited reader response made the iPad an illegitimate messiah of publishing.
Pontin concludes that since the iPad and Newsstand failed to attract subscribers, the web must be the future of publishing, not apps. I’m convinced that Pontin is wrong. Publishers made two vital errors with digital publishing: first, apps should not be treated as a magazine replacement and second, people shouldn’t be forced to pay for content that they don’t want. If publishers and Google can work together to correct these errors, together they can save digital magazines and newspapers.
From songs to films to writing, people have found a way to get digital content for free. All it takes is one pirate and a distribution network to distribute media freely. Despite so many options to steal material, content distribution sources like iTunes, rdio, Netflix, and Google Play have millions of users who pay for content. The problem isn’t that people don’t want to pay for content, but that people want to pay for good content in an attractive medium.
Many publishers made the foolish mistake of thinking that people wanted digital content to be identical to a magazine. Sure, most tablets are roughly the size of a magazine, but that doesn’t mean that readers want to look at digital pages that were formatted for a magazine. Readers want the quality of magazine content in a new medium.
Pontin mentions that various screen sizes, resolutions, and orientations made designing content for tablets and phones difficult. These issues should have been obvious from the start because tablets and smartphones aren’t magazines. If publishers want to control how the content looks then they should design the apps for certain form factors and restrict orientations. If they don’t want to be that restrictive, they should design the content to be malleable to various form factors, orientations, and resolutions (like the web).
Of course the larger issue facing publishers isn’t necessarily the medium, but how to get people to pay for content. Developing a way for readers to see content in a beautiful environment costs a lot of time and money, so publishers want to ensure that they’ll get a decent return on their investment. On the web this was solved with ads, but ads have a nasty tendency of becoming intrusive. Popup blockers have pushed advertisers to create ads that roll out on top of a website with hidden close buttons. Often these are impossible to close on a mobile device, making the content unreadable. Savvy readers might turn to an RSS reader or page saver like Instapaper, but most will probably just move on out of frustration.
Apple tried to provide a unified solution for digital magazines and newspapers with Newsstand, but the lack of innovation in Newsstand led to its poor adoption. Every iOS user has probably opened Newsstand upon discovering that it cannot be hidden away into a folder. Perhaps Apple thought that being restrictive like that would encourage users to try out the app; I have a feeling it just turned users off. To make matters worse, once Newsstand is opened every paper and magazine is listed as free, but digging further reveals the same tired monthly subscription options that no one wants.
This is where Google’s new subscription option in the Play Store could save magazines and newspapers. The key to understanding how to get people to pay for content is to understand that people like choice. Though publishers want readers to purchase a subscription to a package of content (like music labels want listeners to buy whole albums), users don’t want to pay for content they don’t want. The web has conditioned users to expect an option to purchase individual pieces of content, not a whole package. People don’t visit websites to read every article, they visit them to read the articles that interest them. Like it or not, the web has spoiled users into believing that they deserve choice.
Google is the company that built out the web for most people. Without Google Search, the Internet wouldn’t be what it is today. Google Search allowed people to find what they wanted. Because Google has consistently been about offering its users choice, I think Google is best poised to talk publishers into rethinking subscriptions.
If publishers were to accept the idea that people should only pay for what they want, the problem then becomes how to distribute and price individual articles. Apps like Readability have tried to help publishers by collecting subscription money from readers on behalf of the publishers. This idea isn’t a bad one, but I think users would be more comfortable paying for content through Google instead of through a third party app. Google should build in support for magazine and newspaper subscriptions in Google Current, but allow users to pay for individual articles as well as subscribe to whole magazines or newspapers. Google could still help publishers by offering free subscriptions that are subsidized by advertisements and paid subscriptions for a number of articles instead of whole newspapers or magazines so that readers have one place to go for reading instead of multiple websites or apps. Either way, publications would be getting paid money that they’re missing out on now.
The web as we know it isn’t the future of publishing, but neither are individual apps for each publication. People are looking for content in apps because unlike the web, apps are designed from the ground up to work on mobile devices. The sooner publishers realize that the future is mobile and that people want personalized content, not generalized content, they sooner they’ll be able to put out a product that people want to pay for.
If any company would rally behind the idea that users should only pay for what they want, I think it would be Google. Google partners with OEMs every year to ensure that there are a plethora of Android handsets to meet a wide variety of tastes and needs. Google built a search engine with the idea that free access to the information you want is a good thing. Google Plus was designed from the ground up to put you in control of what you share and who you share it with. In short, Google is a company that is all about giving its users what they want. It’s that sort of attitude that can save magazines and newspapers.