Conde Nast has pulled off a coup on Apple‘s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad: It’s actually making money with a digital magazine. According a report in The New York Times, Conde Nast’s long-running literary and cultural criticism magazine The New Yorker has a readership of 100,000 on the iPad, 20,000 of which are annual subscribers that plunked down $60 for a year of access to the magazine.
The New Yorker is succeeding where many other players in the publishing industry have failed in making a transition. Publishers of both periodicals and newspapers have been having a difficult time making money on portable electronics like the iPad, Amazon‘s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Kindle, and Barnes & Noble‘s (NYSE:BKS) Nook. The closest another publication has come to The New Yorker‘s success is Popular Science, a magazine that has about 16,000 iPad subscribers but still has a subscribership of 1.2 million in print.
With The New Yorker still growing, however, it looks like it has stumbled on a formula for success. What’s the key? Keeping it simple, apparently. Deputy editor Pamela Maffei McCarthy said the magazine’s goal was to create an app version “all about reading,” and so The New Yorker edition is predominantly text, foregoing the rich animation and sound that typifies most digital editions of magazines.
Promising and admirable as this presentation is, it simply won’t work broadly as a template for publishers. The New Yorker itself is a text-heavy magazine, so a digital edition that emphasizes clean readability won’t help Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) or the Meredith Corporation (NYSE:MDP). People certainly do read the articles in those publishers’ magazines, such as Sports Illustrated and Better Homes and Gardens, but those also are visually intensive publications. No one is buying SI’s swimsuit issue to read about the on-location shoot, after all.
At the moment, publishers aren’t under immediate pressure to solve the digital conundrum, but a text-centric edition simply won’t be the answer for everyone. But it might be a solution for some.
News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWS) in particular would benefit greatly from The New Yorker‘s model. The publisher is one of the few that has started up publications for portable devices that are only released as digital editions. The Daily, News Corp.’s iPad-only newspaper, is the opposite of The New Yorker, a publication that is dense with images, video, sound and even interactive games. It also has struggled to find an audience since opening for business in February.
The News Corp. and Apple haven’t released readership data for The Daily, but the Nieman Journalism Lab came up with a solid formula for determining at least reader interest. A study published in April tracked how many Twitter posts were made about and from within The Daily (articles are built to let users Tweet about them by clicking a button), and found that the digital paper’s readership was in steep decline after just one month.
A less visually intensive, more text-focused The Daily might be able to find readers where the multimedia version hasn’t. This could be said of all News Corp.’s publications, too, including The Wall Street Journal, whose tablet edition attempts to mimic the layout of a print newspaper and ends up off-putting as a result.
The New Yorker doesn’t have the answer for all digital print, but publishers would do well to take note: Sometimes less is more.