The Internet is, theoretically, the Great Unbundler—atomizing newspaper bales into URLs, and replacing albums with streaming tracks—yet companies keep trying to stuff all that unbundled goodness back into new bundles, for a price. With the proven success of Netflix (57 million global subscribers) and Spotify (15 million), several ventures are trying to introduce this concept to the world of magazines, with uneven returns.
Next Issue Media was born in 2011, with some of the largest magazine publishers onboard. Charging $15 per month for access to about 140 magazines via phone or tablet, it's built an audience of a couple hundred thousand subscribers, Joshua Brustein reports in Bloomberg Businessweek. Brustein notes that this week Magzter, another newsstand of digital apps, is launching a similar service with access to "2,000 magazines—including Maxim, ESPN the Magazine, and Fast Company—although not to any of the 25 most popular magazines at U.S. newsstands." But as Brustein writes, a Netflix for magazines remains the impossible dream of the industry.
What Next Issue and Magzter are principally offering is a Netflix for something far less popular than magazines: magazine apps. Many magazines still have print circulations well into the millions—National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Cosmopolitan, and Time all top 3 million—with monthly online audiences in the tens of millions. But far fewer people are paying extra for the apps. Take out Game Informer Magazine, which offers discounts along with its digital subscription, and there is no magazine in the country with more than 300,000 app subscribers.
The print-magazine industry is struggling, and yet the magazine-app industry is, to a title, between 10 and 100 times smaller. There is not much here to re-bundle. Before Netflix added its own shows, it worked from the beginning as a streaming network of reruns and old movies because millions of people have always tuned into reruns and old movies on cable. It worked by offering a good-enough substitute for an extremely popular product.
This raises a second, harder-to-answer question: Why is the market for magazine apps so small? First, as touchy-feely as this sounds, it's possible that the people who love magazines actually love magazines—the silky skin of the cover, the satisfying heft of the book, the readers' right to mangle the pages and make them their own. I will not call magazines an "experience" because everything is an "experience" now, but they can be, to use a favorite metaphor, a warm bath. A magazine is something you slip into, and it's hard to feel luxuriantly suspended in an iPhone app.
The second theory, which is considerably less sentimental, is that the Netflix for news and entertainment exists already, and it's called the Internet. Every popular magazine has a website, and just about every popular magazine website has a competitor or several hundred, which are all also free. The FT and New York Times notwithstanding, if most sites decided to charge a fee for access to their articles tomorrow, they would quickly lose most of their readership, particularly when the social-media traffic evaporated. Netflix's competition is a $90-a-month subscription to the full cable bundle. Magazine apps' competition is a universe of $0-a-month websites. (The competition theory would also explain why e-books are more popular than magazine apps. You don't need a digital sub to Men's Health to get tips for sex and abs, but there is no free digital substitute for The Goldfinch.)
In short, a "Netflix for (apps of) magazines" has the pretty, pat sound of an idea with a commercially successful future, except that magazine apps have a minuscule market and the Internet is already Netflix enough for most news and entertainment consumers.