Jann Wenner: iPad Magazines a Bad Move for Publishers

Apple’s iPad may be changing how consumers and publishers look at the magazine industry, but Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner thinks companies that are embracing the new format are crazy. Instead, he sees the mainstream transition to digital magazines as decades off, and he thinks they’re a weak substitute for traditional print.

“[The iPad is] a good magazine reading device, absolutely. And where it becomes more convenient to read the magazine on that, that’s got the advantage. But that’s more convenient only if you’re traveling, if you’re away from home,” Mr. Wenner said in an interview with Advertising Age. “Otherwise it’s still easier to read the physical magazine, which is widely available on newsstands, at airports, and everywhere.”

iPad magazinesAdd in the cost of producing digital magazines for the iPad, along with what he sees as a weak return on investment, and Mr. Wenner sees the medium as a losing proposition.

Other publishers, however, may disagree. Hearst and Conde Nast, both big magazine publishers have embraced Apple’s magazine business model and have even started using the company’s in-app subscription features.

While Hearst and Conde Nast may be supporting the iPad, Mr. Wenner sees that as more of a win for Apple instead of publishers. “Their story is simple. They want to go knock off the weakest of the big guys and then use that as a lever,” he said. “They were having no success with Time Inc., because they weren’t going to give, so they went to Hearst.”

Instead of looking for new distribution channels for their publications, Mr. Wenner thinks publishers should focus on the quality of their content. While content is critical, publishers are also looking for new ways to bump up sales, and many see the iPad as a way to draw new readers in and keep current readers from walking away.

Part of the allure the iPad offers is the ability to present magazine content in new ways by offering layout designs that aren’t possible in print, additional content for articles such as video and audio, and the ability to purchase issues when news stands aren’t convenient or available.

Traditional magazines can include supplemental multimedia content through Web pages, but that isn’t always available to subscribers — and especially travelers — thanks to limited Internet access in airplanes. By bundling that content in an iPad app, readers can still read articles on the go, and they get access to extra content that they would otherwise miss.

Despite those benefits, Mr. Wenner thinks the digital magazine market is still too small, and he offered up the Popular Science iPad magazine app as an example. “It’s selling 16,000 on a million-plus rate base, it’s like nothing,” he said.

The transition to ubiquitous digital magazines will be some time coming, too, he thinks. “Who knows how far down the road — years though and possibly decades,” he said.

For people that prefer print, and aren’t interested in tablet devices like the iPad, Mr. Wenner’s assessment may be right. For the rest of the market, however, the number of potential digital subscribers is growing.

Apple is selling several million iPads each quater, adding to the number of potential magazine subscribers, and several companies have released Android-based tablets or are in the process of doing so. In Apple’s first fiscal quarter for 2011, it sold 7.33 million iPads, followed up with another 4.69 million units in its second quarter, and is still seeing strong demand around the world.

With Apple’s tablet growth, along with more competitors bringing their tablets to market, publishers may not need to see a full scale transition away from print before gaining benefits from digital magazines. Instead, they need the type of interest in digital content that generally goes along with tablet buyers, and the money those users are more likely to spend on apps and subscriptions.

Gambling on the iPad market may make sense for some publishers, but not for Mr. Wenner. He thinks adding digital content is stepping away from print and that print still offers a better profit margin for publishers.

“To rush to throw away your magazine business and move it on the iPad is just sheer insanity and insecurity and fear,” he said.