Newsstand screenshot

We’ll see if it lasts, but for now, Newsstand is a read-all-about-it moment for publishers. Newsstand is the new feature in iOS 5 that collects newspaper and magazine apps into a single folder, downloading new content automatically in the background. Whether through novelty or bonafide new habit, readers seem to love it so far. This makes me happy, but we can’t let this recent spike distract us from real problems with the issue-based publishing model Newsstand supports.

First things first. Let’s look at Newsstand’s remarkable success in its first two weeks:

  • Condé Nast reports a 268 percent hike in its weekly rate of new digital subscriptions since the Newsstand launch. Single-copy sales are also up 142 percent compared to the previous eight weeks. (Condé Nast publishes nine iPad titles, including The New Yorker, Wired, Glamour, and Vanity Fair.) (source)

  • The New York Times iPhone app saw 85 times more new user downloads in Newsstand’s first week than the week before (1.8 million compared to 21,000). The Times’ iPad app saw a more modest, but still impressive, jump of seven times as many new downloads (189,000 compared to 27,000). (source)

  • National Geographic’s rate of new iPad subscriber growth grew five times since the launch of Newsstand. (source)

  • Future Publishing reports two million downloads of magazine “containers” in the first four days of Newsstand, more than they see in a typical month. Future is a British publisher with titles including .net, Total Film, and Digital Camera. (source)

  • Exact Editions says downloads of its free sample editions jumped by 14 times in just a few days, while some titles’ actual sales more than doubled. (source)

You get the idea: people are digging it.

What’s the scoop?

No doubt, much of this spike is a novelty effect. As adoring iPhone and iPad owners explore the new features in iOS 5, they’re kicking the tires of Newsstand’s digital editions, too. Will people actually keep reading the titles they’ve signed up for? There are some behavior-changing factors at work that suggest they might.

Location, location, location

The Newsstand folder landed on the home screen of every iPhone and iPad. People can move it, of course, but you shouldn’t underestimate our species’ essential laziness about stuff like this. For many, these digital magazines are going to remain front and center.

Speed kills

Background downloading is a big, big improvement over the painfully slow entire-issue downloads that came before. In the wilderness of hotel internet, for example, it often takes me 15 minutes to download an issue of The New Yorker. That wait is now invisible to me as Newsstand handles the download for me.

It’s hard to overstate how important this is. Studies say delays of microseconds (microseconds!) can reduce browser traffic by as much as 20 percent in some contexts. Imagine how damaging a 15-minute wait can be.

This just in

In Newsstand, app icons change when a publication gets new content, just like the conver of a new magazine issue. Combined with home-screen placement, Newsstand’s fresh icons draw you in like magazines in the supermarket checkout line.

Collector instinct

The Newsstand icon starts out as a bare shelf, and it’s hard to resist loading it up. Tap that bare shelf, and the Store button gives you a quick way to fill it.

Are digital editions saved?

We still have a long way to go. While Newsstand will likely expose tons of new people to the pleasures of iPhone and iPad magazines and newspapers, there remain serious problems with the whole concept of media companies’ stubbornly issue-based approach to publishing.

Until Newsstand, the speed problem was a tough one. By requiring users to download tens or hundreds of articles at a time in big blobs called issues, delays were inevitable. The new background downloading knocks that problem out.

But there are more fundamental problems beyond the technical. Issue-based publishing forces readers into a monolothic visual and navigational metaphor that doesn’t reflect the way we gather information now. Issues are the way publishers understand content, not readers. As readers, we’re engaged by individual stories and, online, tend to pluck out just the ones we want.

Digital magazines remind me of music before MP3s. Remember those bad old days? You had to buy the whole album just to have the one song you wanted. That’s how magazines feel today: all this overhead of extra content that’s sent my way whether I want it or not. Magazines smell spammy.

Issues also create an artifically imposed embargo. Why do I have to wait a week to get an article from Time if it’s already been written?

Publishers and designers have to start thinking about content at a more atomic level, not in aggregated issues. That’s how we already understand news as consumers, and we have to start thinking that way as publishers, too. This is why Flipboard, Instapaper, and other aggregators are so interesting: they give you one container for the whole universe of content, unbound to any one publisher.

Why does print get primacy?

The biggest reason publishers hew to issue-based publishing is that it’s what they know—as a business, as a workflow, and even in terms of tools.

Many publishers use products like Adobe Digital Publishing Suite or Woodwing, tools that let you take print layouts from InDesign, adapt them for the iPad, and pump them out to iOS apps. You can use the same tools, the same staff, and largely the same workflow as you do for print. Woodwing’s website trumpets the convenience: “It’s just like designing a print product.”

You can see the enormous appeal this has for publishers. With little overhead, you can turn the corner from print to iPad.

Thing is, designing an iPad app shouldn’t be “just like designing a print product.” It’s not the same design you want to bring to new platforms, it’s the content. Issue-based publishing puts a straitjacket on digital content, freezing it into a big arbitrary block of pages and articles, sealed with print metaphors. This approach privileges print and its design conventions, imposing them on new platforms. And why should that be the case? Looking out five or ten years, will print be the winner among these platforms? Nope. So why should we rely on print’s design conventions and workflows now?

Or for that matter, why should any single platform’s design conventions—web, phone, tablet, print, you name it—have primacy? Each of these devices should have their own conventions, standing shoulder to shoulder as peers without imposing the design values of each on one another. Print is just another platform and, for better or worse, will only become a more and more minor one over time.

Respect print’s lessons, but don’t be beholden

We have centuries of useful knowledge about designing words, and we should embrace that know-how. But we also have to be prepared to jettison how we package those designed words. The form and containers of our words are changing. It’s no longer about a monolithic issue or even a monolithic page. We have to be prepared to move in new directions that are appropriate to each medium.

I’m pleased to see that Newsstand has gotten some early traction with readers, and I hope it proves profitable for publishers. I’m sympathetic to the legitimate business and creative reasons for sticking with issue-based publishing for iOS. It’s a sensible short-term approach for getting on these platforms in the first place. But looking further out, magazine issues are already old news.

Update: I posted some additional thoughts on Newsstand after a few more conversations with folks in the publishing industry.

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