Why your Spotify or Netflix for print content is probably doomed

Back when the iPad was just a rumor, there was much excitement within the newspaper and magazine industries at the idea that this new device might allow them to create a kind of “iTunes for news,” in which readers would pay a monthly fee for an all-you-can-read subscription to their content. Nothing like that happened, of course, but there are still those trying to make it work — except now they call it a “Spotify for magazines” or a “Netflix for newspapers.”

The latest comes from Magzter, a company that is offering an all-you-can-read subscription to a universe of 2,000 magazines for $9.99 a month. Most of the titles the service offers tend to come from international sources (the company started in India but is now based in New York), but it has magazines from a number of U.S. publishers, including Maxim and Men’s Fitness.

Magzter’s subscription feature is similar to one already offered by NextIssue, which gives readers access to more than 140 top magazines for $9.99 a month, and some other services like Blendle, which is a Dutch company trying to provide an iTunes-style service for newspaper content. NextIssue (which is backed by major publishers like Hearst, Conde Nast and News Corp.) recently raised $50 million in financing from a group of VCs including Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, so there are clearly some who believe in the model.

The discovery problem

I don’t share this enthusiasm, however, for a number of reasons: One of them is the user interface that is offered by most of these services — which tends to employ a somewhat tired “bookshelf” or “newsstand” metaphor that can be difficult to navigate. Meanwhile, the magazines themselves tend to be bloated PDF-style formats that are effectively giant photographs of existing print pages. They take forever to download they are cumbersome to navigate through.

Magzter bookshelf

Another reason why I’m skeptical is that the content doesn’t fit with a Spotify or Netflix model in several crucial ways. Music services, and even those devoted to TV shows or movies, benefit because people will often listen to the same song or watch the same movie multiple times — and are willing to pay for the privilege. I don’t know anyone who wants to read the same news story or magazine piece over and over, let alone pay someone for it.

But the biggest problem with such services is the problem of discovery: One of the main reasons why people like to use Spotify and Rdio and Netflix and similar services is that they make it easy to find new content, whether it’s by sharing playlists or by using algorithm-driven recommendation engines.

Netflix, in fact, has what is probably one of the most powerful recommendation algorithms on the web today, and it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing it and fine-tuning it so that it works for people. There is nothing similar in most of the NextIssue-style services, and so they essentially force you back into old-fashioned behavior — namely, browsing through magazines, flipping virtual pages.

The atomic unit of content

Magzter claims that it has solved the discovery problem, and that its recommendation engine will highlight content for users based on the titles they decide to click on and even what content they read within those magazines. But this kind of recommendation is incredibly difficult to do, especially across 2,000 or more sources. Has Magzter really cracked this problem? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Magazines generic

The bottom line is that these kinds of services may work for finding content to read in magazines that you know you like, but they aren’t very good for discovering new content in magazines you don’t already know about. For that, you have to use services like Prismatic or Nuzzel or Digg Deeper, which take in your social networks and then recommend articles based on what’s being shared and read by those you follow.

Another big flaw with the “Netflix for magazines” model is that it tends to see the magazine itself as the most important thing, despite the fact that in the current media environment — a world in which social sharing is rapidly becoming the most important tool for discovery — the article has arguably become the atomic unit of content. It’s as though iTunes or Spotify forced you to navigate by album instead of by song.

Of course, it’s possible that I’m completely wrong about NextIssue and Magzter. The latter says it has more than 20 million users, up from about 10 million a year ago, so perhaps there is a larger market for such services than I thought. But I still think this newsstand model is missing the point about how our consumption behavior is changing, and that will ultimately spell doom unless the model changes.