A Netflix for magazines and the atomization of attention

There’s been a lot of coverage of the recent launch of Next Issue Media’s tablet-based magazine newsstand service — which currently provides access to a couple of dozen different magazines from prominent publishers like Conde Nast, Time Inc. and Hearst on certain Android devices — and many of the reviews have compared it to Netflix and Hulu and the way those services provide “a la carte” access to TV shows and movies. But that analogy seems flawed in a number of ways. And while the single newsstand idea may be a better solution than the current profusion of competing apps from different publishers, does it really fit the way that people want to consume digital content now?
As my PaidContent colleague Laura Owen described in her coverage of the launch, Next Issue’s app — which at the moment is only available for Android devices running the Honeycomb version of the Android operating system — is a digital newsstand much like the one that Apple created when it launched its Newsstand app for the iPad. Users get virtual shelves of virtual magazines that they can select from, such as Fortune and Esquire, and if they sign up for the highest level of subscription ($14.99 a month) they get to dive into any of the 32 weekly and monthly titles that are included.

A virtual news-stand is an improvement, but is it enough?

Next Issue’s CEO Morgan Guenther has a point when he says that this model has advantages over the current environment, in which users have to pay for and download dozens of individual apps for each of their favorite magazines — and in which many of those (such as Wired magazine) involve downloads of huge files or are otherwise cumbersome to use. As Guenther put it:

It’s like if I walked into Barnes & Noble and wanted to browse magazines, and I was led into a room with windows where I can read Fortune. And then I say, ‘Okay, I want to read Wired,’ and they send me to another room. When I walk in, there’s a big sign on the front door saying, ‘Here are your instructions for reading the magazine.’

So yes, there is some potential in this approach, where browsing is more easily done and users don’t have to download dozens of different apps, and can pay a monthly fee and get access to a bunch of different titles (Next Issue Media says it plans to add more and eventually have as many as 75). But is a newsstand where you have to pay to enter — and you can only browse a certain set of magazines — really what readers want? I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m not even sure many readers want magazines any more, period.
Next Issue’s “newsstand” isn’t really that similar to Netflix or Hulu either: a magazine is much more analogous to a TV network or movie studio, with a bunch of differentiated content aimed at different segments of a market. But Netflix and Hulu don’t force you to subscribe to a specific network and choose among its shows, they just let you browse through programs you want to watch. A version of that for magazines would break everything up into individual articles and then group them based on themes — but publishers would probably hate that.

Readers want more than any single magazine can provide

That’s not to say certain magazines don’t still have brand value, because obviously they do. Readers will go to a name they recognize like Esquire or Vanity Fair because they trust that they will be getting a certain quality of content, and they have an emotional relationship of some kind with that brand. But do they really want to pay a hefty monthly fee just for the opportunity of reading one or more stories in one or more of those magazines? I’m not sure. I used to subscribe to dozens of magazines every month, but eventually decided it was a waste of time because I never read more than a half dozen articles out of the whole stack.
Maybe I am an “edge case” when it comes to information consumption, but the model that appeals far more to me is the Flipboard or Zite or News.me approach, where magazine content from a range of different titles is streamed into the app along with content from other sources such as Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds and so on. In many ways, I have adopted the motto of “if the news is that important, it will find me” — I would much rather have individual articles suggested to me or revealed by people whose opinions I trust than go manually wading through dozens of titles looking for something I might want to read. That’s why I’m so interested in the kind of social and algorithmic recommendations that new “curation” services like Prismatic offer.
And while I might not be the norm, a recent report from Pew showed that a growing number of news consumers get their content from aggregation sites or apps — almost as many as go directly to a specific website. That behavior may not hold true for magazine content, but I think the mobile and tablet era and the increasing socialization of media is changing the way people consume content of all kinds, and Next Issue Media doesn’t feel like it is riding that wave — it feels like an attempt to duplicate something that worked in the days of print subscriptions.
If you’re interested in this topic, we’re going to be talking more about these kinds of issues at PaidContent 2012 in New York on May 23rd.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user David B