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.