Tablet as Savior? Not So Fast

Media industry insiders weigh in on paid subscriptions for the iPad.

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Bob Sauerberg

Photo By Ryan McCune/

An illustration of The New Yorker for iPad.

Photo By Illustration by Tyler Resty

Eleven months ago, when Condé Nast launched its Wired app on the iPad and revealed its impressively strong 100,000 downloads, the company’s chief executive officer Chuck Townsend was extremely proud.

“Ca-ching, thank you very much, if you will,” he said a month after the app’s launch. The cash machine then promptly shut off for any title in the industry. The so-called “Jesus Tablet” wasn’t acting very magical. Advertisers stopped returning iPad-related calls. The conventional wisdom from magazine publishers switched to: We can’t have a conversation about this being a business until subscriptions start.

Well, the conversation ignited last week, when Hearst and Condé Nast became the first two big publishers to unveil those ever-elusive subscription deals with Apple. Condé Nast launched first, with The New Yorker going live on Monday.

So is it now time to talk about how this will be a real business?

Not yet, it appears.

According to insiders at both companies, executives aren’t exactly doing backflips. One Condé Nast insider told WWD that the deal the company struck is virtually the same as the one that Apple has been proposing for months — that is, publishers finally threw in the towel and will see if they could make a go of it the Steve Jobs way. If a magazine’s app is sold in the iTunes store, 30 percent of that money goes to Apple and readers will have to check off a box that would allow publishers to have access to that very critical treasure trove of consumer data. In other words, it’s not exactly the deal publishers were hoping for.

Time Inc, meanwhile, has decided to wait on the sidelines altogether. Steve Sachs, executive vice president, consumer marketing and sales, said the company continues to talk to Apple but a subscription deal isn’t in the works, at least not right now. “We’re not saying we will never do this,” said Sachs. “We’re saying that we are very happy with the relationship we’ve built with Apple up until now. There are multiple ways to work with Apple as a partner.” Time Inc. subscriptions are currently sold on the Android and they will be available for purchase on HP’s tablet, which makes its debut this summer.

At the National Magazine Awards Monday night — despite the fact that some companies in magazine industry finally had the subscriptions it had been waiting for — there was a decidedly less-than-enthusiastic feel to everything tablet-y. For the time being, there won’t be any “Mission Accomplished” banners hanging from the Hearst Tower or 4 Times Square. The approach remains: Wait and see and hope.

“Someone was talking to us today and said something pretty useful,” said New York editor Adam Moss. “There were three stages. Let me see if I can remember the three stages. The first stage was, ‘iPad aahhh! What is that?’ The second stage was, ‘Yay! iPad!’ And now the third stage is ‘OK, but why?’ And that’s where we are now. The ‘why’ stage. It could be something big or it could be nothing at all.”

Are subscriptions the magic bullet?

“I really don’t think anyone knows yet,” said Marie Clarie editor in chief Joanna Coles.

“For a magazine that is about large size and images, I’m very much into the wait-and-see,” said W editor in chief Stefano Tonchi.

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