The future of magazine publishing increasingly is appearing on a digital display — not just a newsstand.
Advancements in software and hardware are making it easier for a growing faction of consumers — including coveted younger readers called screen-agers — to read their favorite publications on the Internet or download and read them later offline.
"It's not Jetsons. It's real," says Richard Maggiotto, CEO of Zinio, one of a dozen or so companies that specialize in creating digital editions of magazines and newspapers.
"We aren't trying to erode print systems, but give publishers another way to redistribute their content," he says. "It gives readers what they want in media formats they are increasingly using, such as iPhone, iPod, PCs."
The San Francisco-based Zinio and similar ventures could be a lifeline for the magazine and newspaper industries as readers — especially younger ones — migrate to the Internet and electronic devices to get their news.
Potentially, more may follow, with developments in "e-paper" technology. E Ink and Plastic Logic are developing flexible screen technology that will let consumers read content in color while on the move, says David Renard, senior analyst at market researcher MediaIdeas. By 2020, e-paper will be a $25 billion industry, he says. Amazon.com and Sony are among those that have created wireless reading devices. Amazon's Kindle lets people buy books and access other content over Sprint's wireless broadband network.
Digital versions of magazines "are a far superior reading experience in that the website is endless. There are billions of pages, where you can drift on tangents stemming from each story," says Bo Sacks, publisher of consultant Precision Media Group.
The growing popularity of virtual magazines could be a panacea for foreign publishers — many of whom want to crack the U.S. market but are hindered by distance and mailing costs — and it extends the reach of American publications to rural areas, where many titles are hard to find.
"It's a cost-efficient way to get an issue to a subscriber who wants it immediately," says Peter Winn, a director in the consumer marketing department at Bonnier, which produces more than 40 magazines, including Field and Stream and Popular Science.
Zinio is at the vanguard of digital publishing. It has created electronic versions of over 750 magazines, including BusinessWeek, Elle, Redbook, Playboy and Car and Driver. Consumers access them from their PC, iPhone or iPod Touch anytime — before magazines hit newsstands. Zinio gets a cut of sales as online distributor, Maggiotto says. Consumers pay publishers for online editions — be it for a subscription, single issue or back issue.
The digital editions let readers click on links embedded in articles and ads to peruse video, audio and related stories. That, no doubt, is pleasing the growing ranks of digital magazine subscribers.
To be sure, the electronic magazines take a little getting used to. To turn pages, for instance, people must click on the upper right-hand corner of a page. And they must navigate a series of links to find details about particular stories.
But, "Now I read the news when it happens — not when my magazine arrives days later," says Bud Clark, a 64-year-old retiree in Lyons, Ore. For nearly a year, he has subscribed to the digital version of Macworld. Previously, he received it through a mail subscription.
"I can flip through the pages on my PC screen, like you would leaf through a magazine," he says.
Reaching new readers
Services like Zinio's can't come soon enough for magazine publishers.
In the second half of 2007, paid circulation of consumer magazines fell 1.7%, to $277 million from $282 million in the first half of that year. The decline has been steady for seven years, since the industry's paid circulation peaked in 2000, says Audit Bureau of Circulations.
At the same time, the number of Internet users at home and at work worldwide now is 850 million, compared with 731 million in late 2006, according to market researcher ComScore. Such wrenching changes have not been lost on magazine publishers.
"To keep pace with a new generation of readers, providing a choice of print or digital, and expanding our online offerings as flexible full-color screens and e-paper emerges, makes sense," says Phyllis Rotunno, senior vice president of subscription circulation at Playboy Enterprises.
Since Playboy launched a digital edition in 2005 with the help of Zinio, it has sold some 1.7 million digital issues. They cost $19.97 for a dozen issues, and $4.99 for a single issue. (Playboy's average annual magazine circulation is 2.6 million.) Main selling points of the digital magazine version include the ability to zoom in and out on photos, view video and photo outtakes and listen to music clips.
Zinio also recently partnered with Barnes & Noble to sell digital magazines on the book chain's website. What is more, Zinio offers for free 120 "digital classics" such as Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations through its website, zinio.com. The books are downloadable.
Maggiotto is particularly proud that digital publishing is also good for the environment.
An estimated 12 billion magazine issues are printed each year in the USA. Yet 70% of newsstand copies go unsold, he says. Consequently, the equivalent of 35 million trees are chopped down each year to produce many issues that go unsold, according to the non-profit Co-op America, which tracks paper consumption in the publishing industry.
Playboy, for example, has saved $1.2 million from lower manufacturing, distribution, paper and postal costs.
"We're saving publishers money and the forests trees," Maggiotto says. "It can't get much better than that."