Huffington: Smart experiment, or old-media mistake?

The Huffington Post’s (s aol) transformation from an upstart collection of unpaid bloggers and over-aggregators into a traditional media entity seems virtually complete now that it has become a weekly magazine — a virtual iPad magazine, but a magazine nonetheless. The title/app, simply called Huffington, was launched on Wednesday with a New York-style party befitting its eponymous founder and by Thursday it was reportedly the number one app in the Tunes store. But isn’t the Huffington Post supposed to be a creature of the web and the age of social media? Is launching a subscription app for the iPad a smart way of branching out, or a sign of old-media thinking run amok?
The magazine — which costs 99 cents for a single issue, or $19.99 for an annual subscription — looks and feels very similar to many other magazine apps for the iPad. As Joe Pompeo noted in his article on it at Capital New York, it is designed and laid out to mimic a traditional magazine, with the short items up front as a kind of appetizer section, followed by meatier long pieces in the middle, some eye-catching photo features, and then some shorter links as dessert at the end of the magazine. And it doesn’t take hours to download as some iPad magazines do.
One obvious reason to have such a thing is to appeal to advertisers — since online advertising is notoriously low in value, and print (even the digital illusion of print) is still worth more. And there could be readers who are looking for a weekly summary or longer read. But at the same time, magazine apps are also a very old-media thing to do: apart from Sir Richard Branson’s abortive experiment with the standalone iPad magazine Project in 2010, most apps come from existing media entities like Conde Nast and Time Warner and are clearly an attempt to duplicate the old scarcity model traditional media outlets are so fond of.

So is Huffington Post magazine a savvy strategic decision aimed at broadening its appeal for both readers and advertisers, or a throwback to the bad old days when media tried to control the platform the content appeared in? Here’s a breakdown of what is smart and what isn’t:

  • Smart: Having a print or digital magazine in addition to a free website is arguably a smart move, since it might appeal to a different market. The Christian Science Monitor stopped printing a daily newspaper but continues to put out a print edition weekly, and has seen some good results from that strategy — and Politico has a printed version despite being a digital-native entity. Some people will always prefer the old style of content consumption.
  • Dumb: As Jason Pontin of MIT’s Technology Review recently pointed out, magazine apps often don’t accomplish much and cost a lot in terms of time and resources. Tech Review has dropped its app strategy completely and is looking into developing subscription content and features through its website instead. As John Borthwick of Betaworks mentioned recently, focusing on the container is not always a good thing.
  • Smart: You could argue that having a number of options when you are a media company makes sense, whether it’s some kind of paywall or subscription model, or an app that people pay for — media industry analyst Ken Doctor says that success will come from many different things, not a single magic bullet. And since web-based advertising is not enough as a standalone revenue source for most digital media companies, why not try an app?

  • Dumb: One of the downsides of an iPad-based strategy is that you have to cut a deal with Apple to be part of the Newsstand, and that means you have to pay 30 percent of your revenue to the company. Publishers such as the Financial Times have decided that this isn’t really worth it, and have moved to a web-native HTML5 approach, which cuts down on development time for an iPad app and can be used anywhere — and gives the media company 100 percent of the revenue.
  • Smart: Huffington Post has included a number of things in its app that set it apart from the mainstream magazine app, and one of those is reader comments. This is something many publishers ignore, but it is one of the core parts of the Huffington Post experience (whether you like them or not) and it drives a huge amount of engagement: one of the stories in the app had 1,300 comments when I last checked, all of which can be read and replied to on the iPad version.
  • Dumb: As nice as it is, Huffington is still a weekly magazine, and so it suffers from all of the flaws that any other weekly like Newsweek or Time suffers from — such as the fact that some of the content is going to be stale. The most recent version had an item about British Prime Minister David Cameron forgetting one of his children at the pub, which was interesting a few days ago but not so much now. Perhaps some people still like the weekly read, but how many of them are there?

In the end, the magazine might be a worthwhile experiment for AOL — which is trying desperately to generate new revenue streams — and might help to burnish the image of the Huffington Post as it tries to become a reputable and mainstream media outlet. But despite its strengths, it is still a backward-looking approach that has more to do with paywalls and other old-media gambits than it does the kind of web-based creativity the Huffington Post was once known for. Will it work? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean it will say anything interesting about the future of media.