It’s long been an article of faith among media optimists that the shift to digital publishing would be a good thing for publishers in the long run, freeing them of the burden of their biggest costs: paper, printing and postage.
That’s why I was surprised to hear David Link, founder and creative director of the digital design firm The Wonderfactory, say, at a recent conference, that producing and distributing app-based magazines for tablet computers and other mobile devices is as costly as putting them out with ink and paper, if not more so. The problem, he told me afterward, is bandwidth. Magazine apps are large downloads. One of the biggest, the early version of Wired’s iPad edition, was around half a gigabyte.
If you’re selling directly through Apple’s iTunes store, that’s no problem: Apple handles the download — in exchange for a 30 percent cut of the sale price. But most publishers aren’t satisfied with that arrangement, which leaves Apple in control of the customer relationship and the resulting data and, for now, limits them to selling single copies rather than subscriptions. However, says Link, “if they’re going through the subscription route and they want to circumvent that” — for instance, through Zinio, a digital publishing services provider with an app of its own — “then they actually have to pay for all that bandwidth.”
Over time, of course, bandwidth gets cheaper, and file compression gets better. Link says most magazine apps now fall in the range of 80 to 250 megabytes per issue, and “I’m hoping they’ll get down to 30 to 50 megs.” But set against that is the pressure to inflate them with ever more rich media. Just as publishers once conditioned readers to expect that all print content ought to be free online, now they’re teaching consumers to expect magazine apps that are tricked out with videos, interactive graphics and more. Link points out that Sports Illustrated’s iPad app, which Wonderfactory developed, features 50 to 100 photos per issue not found in the magazine. And all that extra content doesn’t produce itself, either: Link estimates that putting out an enhanced mobile edition requires two to five extra staffers.
None of this is to say media apps won’t be a great business at some point. But if and when they get there, it will be because of of the high rates publishers will be able to charge for rich, interactive, targeted advertising. Take that out of the equation and app-based publishing, like print publishing, is a cost-heavy, money-losing proposition.