Two Problems with a Digital Storefront for Mags

It's official: Conde Nast, Hearst, News Corp, Time Inc and Meredith publishing have joined hands and taken a leap of faith into the terra incognita of ... what exactly? Sounds like the nation's largest magazine publishers are starting something like an iTunes or Hulu for magazines -- a "digital storefront" where readers can find elegant e-zine renditions of their favorite names download them onto any portable device.

I'm all for innovation and experimentation in the media sphere. Search engine deals? Why not. Pay walls? Let's have 'em. Sponsors and events? Oh sure. So why am I still confused with this idea? Maybe because it sounds just like ... The Internet.

Here's the press announcement on what this new storefront offers (my comments in bold):

The goal of this digital initiative is fourfold, to create: a highly featured common reading application capable of rendering the distinctive look and feel of each publication [don't magazine websites already have that?]; a robust publishing platform optimized for multiple devices, operating systems and screen sizes [can't you already read most websites on your smartphone?]; a consumer storefront offering an extensive selection of reading options [so, the Internet but with less stuff...]; and a rich array of innovative advertising opportunities [...and more intrusive advertising?].

This idea is far from doomed. On the contrary, it's a necessary experiment to sell and bundle news. But here's the central challenge. This digital storefront has to be either (1) more attractive and useful than today's already attractive and useful websites (2) more economical than today's already free websites. The solution to (1) must be to build renditions of these magazines that are so simple, elegant and portable that any on-the-go user would feel bereft to rely on the magazine's mere HTML incarnation. The solution to (2) must be to make today's free websites cost something. Nothing in the press announcement talks about pay walls going up around and, but I can't imagine another way around it. Too much of today's online news and opinion has no price. Until users know differently, they won't be willing to pay.