Publishers want out of Apple's Newsstand jail

Apple was supposed to save publishers, but these days, it seems like publishers need to be saved from Apple.

Three years ago, Apple introduced Newsstand, a feature that gave iOS users a dedicated home for their digital magazines and newspapers. The app, designed to look like an actual physical newsstand, was good news, too, for publishers, which finally had a way to better stand out from other non-magazine apps.

But three years later, publishers say that Newsstand is holding them back and, in some cases, actively hurting them. Last week, The Magazine, a small publication founded by Instapaper creator Marco Arment, announced that it was folding, just two years after it was first published. While the publication has been profitable since its start, owner Glenn Fleishman said that The Magazine was actively losing subscribers, and Apple’s Newsstand, its sole distribution mechanism, was in part to blame.

Core to the problem is the way Newsstand alerts users when they have new magazines to read. In iOS 6, Newsstand’s home screen icon would automatically refresh whenever a new edition of a periodical was available, giving iOS users a clear indication of when new content was available. That changed in 2013, however, when Apple introduced iOS 7, which ditched the bookshelf style icon for a simpler one that gave no visual cues at all. And the Newsstand app has remained unchanged in iOS 8, the latest version of the operating system.

“I heard at least 100 times from readers since iOS 7 came out that they unsubscribed because they could not remember to read us since our cover icon no longer appeared on the Newsstand icon on their home screen,” Fleishman said.

Apple did not return requests for comment.

Publishers like National Geographic and Mental Floss are also cooling to Newsstand, which they say still falls short. “I still think it’s a great place for driving discovery of magazines and content,” said Vidya Gopel, National Geographic’s director of digital marketing and membership. “The challenge is engagement. Readers are subscribing, but then they forget to come back.”

While this problem affects all publishers, it’s a bigger deal for magazines with monthly or even bi-monthly publishing schedules, which make it much harder for people to naturally remember to look for new digital issues. Making it worse that iOS users can’t actually remove their magazine apps from the Newssapp folder and put them on their iOS home screens.

Apple has also made Newsstand less useful for publishers overall. One of the biggest benefits to the app is that it let users auto-download new magazine editions in the background — a big deal when the average digital magazine is 200 megabytes or more. Apple, however, brought similar functionally to non-Newsstand apps, forcing publishers to wonder why they should bother with Newsstand at all.

There are other issues as well. Newsstand still doesn’t let readers give gift subscriptions to others (a common way that National Geographic gets new subscribers), nor does it let publishers offer limited-time subscription discounts, Gopel said.

And then there are the discovery issues, another common criticism leveled against Newsstand. “Unless you’re featured by Apple, it’s very, very hard to get noticed,” said Christopher Curth, senior digital commerce manager at Mental Floss and The Week. “Users either search the title they want or wade through broad categories. I think there’s great opportunity to treat this almost like a real-life newsstand for browsers.”

Issues with discoverability aren’t limited to just publishers, however. Apple’s App Store has long been criticized for being unfriendly to app developers looking to get attention for their unknown apps. Instead, the App Store creates a positive feedback loop, generating outsize interest in the most popular apps while making it nearly impossible for others to get noticed.

In the end, the best course for publishers is to assume Apple isn’t going to help. “The expectation was that this would help save publishers, but one of things we now know is that Apple doesn’t owe publishers anything,” Marko Karppinen, CEO of iPad magazine platform Richie.

“There’s long been this undertone in tablet magazines that if publishers build it, the readers will come,” he said. “But that’s simply not true.”