Tablet as Time Machine: Old Magazine Issues Finding New Life on the iPad

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Hearst and other magazine publishers are blurring the line between past and present -- and reaping the rewards.

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There's an iceberg-like quality to magazines: The peek of content that's visible above the surface -- sitting on the newsstand, promoted on the website -- is only a tiny fraction of the content they have to offer in total. This is both frustrating (all that information, just sitting there!) and fantastic (all that information, just sitting there!). And it makes the following stat, via an AdWeek report, intriguing:

At Hearst Magazines, 30 percent of the single copies sold on tablets are back issues.

Whoa. Thirty percent! There's a caveat to the craziness -- the stat is for single-issue sales, rather than full-on subscriptions -- but still. People aren't just consuming archival content on longform-friendly tablets...they're actually paying for it! From a vote-with-our-pocketbooks perspective, that's a big deal.

And Hearst isn't the only company to be benefitting from the sale of archival issues. Over at Popular Science, AdWeek reports, back issues have accounted for a whopping 40 percent of the single digital copies the mag has sold this year. And at Popular Photography, the single-copy number jumps to 41 percent.

Those stats aren't just good news for a magazine industry that's always on the lookout for new ways to make money from old content. They have a bigger message, too, I think. One of the legacies of the media's time-carved production process -- the daily paper, the nightly newscast, the monthly magazine -- has been a thickening of the line between the old and the new. Our information sources have, out of necessity, subdivided experience into spaces that separate, insistently and implicitly, the Then from the Now. Today's paper is a noble attempt to create a snapshot of a singular moment, a declarative draft of history. Yesterday's paper is trash.

Real life, however, is not so divided. It flows, one moment to the next, so fluidly that "the moment" itself, as a discrete thing, is almost impossible to sense or define. Past and present may be convenient categories, but they don't ring especially true to lived experience. So it's entirely natural that, given the right tools -- i.e. digital mechanisms that allow the blending of the was and the is into a single, permissive consumption experience -- we'll take advantage of them. It's totally sensible that we'll take the knowledge of the past and transport it to the present.  And gladly pay for the opportunity.

Magazines may be unique cases in the context of the news industry overall; their content, by nature, will always be more evergreen than the fleeting stuff of newspapers or newscasts. Still, though. It's exciting to think about what might happen, business-wise and otherwise, if we think about attention less as something that's fleeting, and more as something that can stretch, patiently, over time.

Image: Samokhin/Shutterstock.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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