I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Some responses to the magazine counterarguments

I’ve gotten hundreds of Twitter and email messages about my post on iPad-magazine ads. I thought I was being clear that this was simply how I felt, but that post has irritated a lot of magazine and newspaper people who seem to be misinterpreting my argument. So I’ll restate it, in brief:

I feel ripped off when I pay for an iPad or web publication and it still contains ads.

It’s not even an argument, really. It’s a feeling. From a customer. I’ve also gotten a lot of emails and tweets in agreement, so this might represent the feelings of a nontrivial amount of potential customers.

Ads as content

For many magazine genres, such as fashion or lifestyle, the ads are a desirable part of the content. I’m not talking about those here: I’m talking about magazines in which the most desirable content is the non-ad text. (“I read it for the articles.”)

“The problem isn’t ads, it’s intrusive ads”

No, the problem is ads. Ads signify to me that the money I paid isn’t enough to give me the product I thought I paid for. That’s what I called “double-dipping”: I paid with the expectation that I was paying for the entire product, and then I was unexpectedly sold out, which offends me.

(Again, this is my opinion.)

This is the same reason I find “Rate this app!” dialogs in paid apps distasteful. I paid for the app, and then it intrudes into my usage to solicit an advertisement from me to attract more buyers.

The tangible product

When I pay for a printed magazine issue — which only ever happens if I’m flying somewhere and pick up The Economist for taxi, takeoff, and landing — I don’t feel ripped off that there are ads in it.

Maybe it’s because the cover price feels like it’s paying for the physical product, and the ads feel like they’re paying for the content. But I don’t feel that distinction when buying a digital issue: that just feels like I’m paying for the content, since there’s no physical artifact. Again, I’m talking about feelings here.

“Subscribers pay far less than $4.99 per issue”

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me, as people from the industry respond, that ads are the primary business for most magazines and newspapers — that the business depends more on ad revenue than subscription fees or newsstand sales.

I don’t know the business, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that the reason subscriptions are so heavily discounted from the per-issue prices is that the publishers want to encourage as many subscribers as possible, which makes their ad sales more lucrative against a guaranteed minimum audience (for whom they have lots of reliable demographic information). If the per-issue prices were very low, it wouldn’t encourage as many subscribers and the targeting would therefore be more vague, weakening the value to advertisers.

But to a new customer — someone who just bought their first single issue — it’s pretty clear that they’re getting the worst deal possible. That’s not a good way to grow a base of recurring customers.

How are newspaper and magazine subscription numbers looking these days? Not great, right? Wouldn’t it be in their best interests to encourage new customers?

“Nobody would pay the full cost, so ads are necessary”

As I said, I don’t know what I’m talking about with the specifics of the business, as so many of you have pointed out. But permit me to let my mind wander for a minute:

Ads are supposedly necessary to subsidize the publications so they can be sold at an acceptable cost to most readers. But if ads didn’t need to be sold, the staff and operations related to ad sales could be cut, reducing the cost of delivering each issue.

If the publication went digital-only, the entire infrastructure for printing and distribution could be cut, too.

If all readership is on the website and an iPad app, how much of the layout staff is necessary? Web publications don’t need custom layouts for each post. On the iPad, I find that the magazine-like layouts get in the way and make the reading experience more difficult. iPad magazine content shouldn’t look like scanned printed-magazine pages.

Are incredibly complex and expensive-to-develop iPad apps necessary, or would simpler ones suffice? Are enough customers really demanding the expensive features — especially those with big per-issue costs, like all of the multimedia “extras” — to make them worth their costs, or would most of the readership still pay the same amount for just the text and a few optional photos in a nice, reusable template? That’s how most websites publish their content, and we’re all fine with it. In many ways, such a structure could result in much better apps: adjustable fonts, text selection, highlighting, and many other reader-friendly features become much simpler to implement in such an environment. Higher quality, lower cost. (And this is a business that I can speak authoritatively on.)

With a smaller staff, and with most resources allocated to content generation, how much management and support staff could be cut? And would the huge offices in prime Manhattan locations still be necessary?

What percentage of a major publication’s cost per issue is directly responsible for the authoring and editing of the content today? Much less than half, I’d guess. (I’d love to know real numbers on this.) How much could we increase that by cutting these departments that are irrelevant or unnecessary in a modern, digital-only publication?

You can continue to call me an idiot or tell me that I have no idea what I’m talking about. (Many do, every day. It’s the cost of having a blog, an app, or an email address, and I have all three.) But there are much more interesting questions I’d like to see discussed by the people who know this business, not how much of an ass I am for feeling like paying for ads is a bad deal.

Maybe the problem isn’t my opinion on double-dipping, or the need to “educate” consumers on how much we should pay and how many ads we should tolerate, or how ads and direct payments and selling our personal information are all necessary to pay the immense cost of production.

Maybe the cost of production is the problem.

This isn’t a new argument. (Not even close.) But it’s hard for me to justify excusing an industry’s high costs that pay for work I didn’t ask for and don’t need in order to have great articles and news to read on my iPad.

Those are big problems to solve. But they’re the publishers’ problems, not the customers’. They’re implementation details. I don’t need to know why $4.99 is insufficient to pay for 15 articles on my iPad. I just know that it feels like a premium price for such a relatively small amount of content, and I don’t feel right paying premium prices for ad-subsidized products.

Maybe I’m the only one. But what does it mean for the business if I’m not? If you’re in the business, wouldn’t addressing that question be a more productive use of your time than telling potential customers that their feelings are wrong?