Marko Karppinen

I make digital magazines profitable at Richie.
You should also follow me on Twitter here.

The problem with magazines is in this chart

U.S. magazines, paid circulation 2001–2011

According to the MPA, single copy retail sales of magazines have been in a free fall for the past decade. During the ten years from 2001 to 2011, newsstand sales dropped a whopping 47%.

But for much of the same period, magazine subscriptions actually made gains. A decline only started with the financial crisis in 2008 as families cut back on frivolous fixed expenses. By 2011, magazines had only lost 7% of their 2001 subscription circulation. With newsstand sales — the primary way of discovering new magazines — decimated, that is an amazing feat of resilience.

So we simply stopped going to the newsstands

It’s no surprise, really. We also stopped going to Borders bookstores and to Blockbuster Video. Yet the consensus is that magazines are in trouble while books and movies are doing just fine. Why?

With books and movies, it was easy to recognize that the Internet presented a problem not for the products, but for their archaic forms of delivery. Bring the delivery (kicking and screaming, but still) to the Internet era, and you will have solved the problem. No fiddling with the product necessary.

With magazines, most observers have jumped to the opposite conclusion. That the product itself is to blame. And no wonder: it’s easy to look at the time we spend on Facebook, Twitter and on our iPhones and conclude that magazines, as products, are over.

But all of that is just a manifestation of the underlying delivery issue: the magazines we know and love are simply not present online.

Fixing the wrong problem

Wait, what? Almost all magazines have an online presence these days. On Twitter, on their web sites, everywhere.

Yes, but a web site for a magazine is not a magazine. It’s a web site. A Twitter feed for a magazine is a Twitter feed, not a magazine. The same is true of the multimedia experiences many magazines are building on the iPad. They are many things, but they’re not magazines.

Now all this may sound like an absurdly prescriptivist stance on what may or may not be called a magazine. Absurd or not, I believe that when readers and magazine fans think of a magazine, they have a very specific thing in mind. And that thing is something that most magazine publishers have failed to bring online.

Publishers are in a tough spot, and their urge to fiddle with the product is understandable. Social media experts, builders of digital publishing tools, even the professional ambitions of editorial staff are all driving publishers to try and reinvent the magazine. The holy grail in this line of thinking is the embodiment of a magazine as a social multimedia experience, using all of the capabilities of our new devices and networks.

Before going all-in on such a pursuit, however, magazine publishers would do well to make sure that their readership is willing to tag along.

Circulation data points to an alternative path forward. Readers of magazines are happy with the product. They just no longer frequent the points of sale.

Full disclosure: I have a horse in this race. I make an iPad magazine platform.