Are Magazine Apps Dead?

A State of the Art Roundtable

Just a little under four years ago I headed down to St. Petersburg, Florida for an iPad conference at the Poynter Institute hosted and organized by Mario Garcia. A small but very engaged group of newspaper, magazine, and digital designers gathered to see and hear reports on the very first wave of app creations.

My iPad had just arrived from Apple the day before and was still fresh in its box, and I spent a lot of the conference busily downloading apps from a wide array of publications (remember how long those downloads used to take?). It was a heady and exciting moment, and almost everyone at that conference left to go home and launch new, groundbreaking app projects across a wide variety of styles and platforms.  

I used the experience of Mario’s conference to talk my way into a job at Reader’s Digest, helping to launch their magazine app, and later another for Best Health, a related magazine published in Toronto. There were iPad conferences, workshops, case studies that were published in design magazines and websites, and it seemed like everybody was working on an app project.  

Not anymore. We’ve come a long way since a top creative director breathlessly told me that “the iPad is the biggest thing to happen to magazines since the printing press.” And while some magazines continue to publish exciting, engaging iPad editions — National Geographic, Esquire, Popular Mechanics, and Bon Appetit are doing top-notch work — for many the rich, textural digital versions filled with original content and experiences have devolved into what are essentially flat replicas.  

Readers and especially magazine makers have failed to embrace the new magazine apps in large (or even medium) numbers. I was recently with a roomful of top magazine editors and creative directors at the National Magazine Awards and it was apparent that none of them had a passion or sense of engagement with apps; iPad magazines simply were not an essential part of their world.  

What went wrong? Are iPad apps dead, or do they still have a bright future? I reached out for answers to some of the smartest magazine makers I know, folks who have been active in creating dynamic editorial products on multiple platforms, from print magazines to daily newspapers to websites. And of course, they’ve all been integral in the development of some memorable magazine app projects. I asked them about the lack of enthusiasm for apps, how the production system has affected app creation, and whether there’s a future for digital magazines on the tablet platform.  

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