Wenner Media plans to introduce an iPad edition of Us Weekly this Thursday, almost a year after Jann Wenner said magazines were rushing to the iPad out of "insanity and insecurity and fear."
As it turns out, a year hasn't changed Mr. Wenner's diagnosis that much. He still holds relatively modest expectations for magazine tablet editions. "A couple years ago people were talking about how this was going to change and revolutionize the industry," he said in an interview. "It hasn't happened yet. I still think it's a generation away, at least. I'm not even sure it happens in a generation."
So why is the No. 2 celebrity weekly going on the iPad at all?
Improving software has made it easier and cheaper to publish issues to tablets, according to Mr. Wenner. And readers have shown that they don't want all the expensive bells and whistles, he added. So Us Weekly's iPad edition, when it joins the magazine's Nook and Kindle editions in a few days, will be a relatively unenhanced affair. And rather than laboriously formatting it twice -- once for the iPad's vertical mode and again for horizontal -- editors are only providing a "portrait" experience.
"Right now it's just a basic replica, but over time we'll see and make adjustments," said Editor-in-Chief Mike Steele.
Now that Mr. Wenner is at least in the game, the mantle of app editions' biggest detractor may belong to MIT's Technology Review, of all places, which last week said it was abandoning apps and doubling down on its website. It argued that rendering every issue for various app platforms was too much work to create a digital walled garden that didn't compare well to the open web. "You can make a good app if you want," said Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief and publisher. "But why bother?"
Most consumer magazine publishers have an answer to that question. They believe readers won't pay for digital content on the web, but will pay for apps. And paid tablet circulation is indeed growing quickly, to 3.29 million in the second half of 2011 from 1.46 million in the year-earlier period, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. That's still just 1% of the total, but publishers expect further torrid expansion.
"I think you'll see the numbers jump when our June statements come out," said Dave Leckey, exec VP-consumer marketing at American Media. American publishes Star and OK, celebrity weeklies that compete with Us Weekly in print, online and on tablets.
Jann Wenner and the iPad, Revisited
Ad Age : How do you view magazines' print and digital mix now?
Mr. Wenner: Digital editions of magazines -- that 's a very tiny, tiny, tiny market for magazines right now, but it'll grow. And as it grows it will become more important. What's the average right now—1% or 2%? That's a nice little bit, but it's not meaningful. That may grow over the next 5 or 10 years to 5% or 10%. It'll become a steady part of the mix.
Ad Age : What's the right way for publishers to use the iPad?
Mr. Wenner:It's a nice marginal revenue stream if you don't spend too much money on it. But I think publishers have learned what I said long ago: a replica is a good thing, but you don't want all kinds of videos and interactive features on it. That's not what you buy a magazine for. You don't get satisfaction from turning the page and seeing a TV show or a video game.
Ad Age : Has anything changed your assessment that it will be decades before digital becomes the new main business?
Mr. Wenner: Not yet. A couple years ago people were talking about how this was going to change and revolutionize the industry. It hasn't happened yet. I still think it's a generation away, at least. I'm not even sure it happens in a generation. The issue for the magazine business is not the iPad. The issue for the magazine business is advertising sales. That's where people are scared and frightened. That fear has led people to embrace these crazy kind of Hail Mary deus-ex-machina solutions such as the iPad as a magazine thing. It's a great device, but not necessarily a great device to read magazines.