magazine_coverMacro Arment, the founder of one of my favourite apps, Instapaper, launched a magazine in Apple’s Newstand app last year called The Magazine. Thusfar, The Magazine has received much discussion with regard to two things. First, it was accessible via an app-only subscription of $1.99 per month (there were two issues per month each containing five articles). As a business model, this was surprising as it seemed to be following in the shoes of then soon to be demised The Daily. Second, unlike The Daily and every other magazine, it was designed purely with reading in mind. Craig Mod used it as the prime example in his widely circulated talk, Subcompact Publishing.

But apart from the business model and the user interface, the one thing that I never heard talked about was The Magazine‘s content. It is now 10 issues strong and I haven’t really been compelled to read an article. Of course, if I had wanted to I would have had to subscribe (or at least registered for a trial). 25,000 people did subscribe, however, which appears to make The Magazine a going concern. However, yesterday Arment admitted that he was missing out on a demand opportunity: sharing.

I hastily built a basic site while I was waiting for the app to be approved. I only needed it to do two things: send people to the App Store, and show something at the sharing URLs for each article. Since The Magazine had no ads, and people could only subscribe in the app, I figured there was no reason to show full article text on the site — it could only lose money and dilute the value of subscribing.

That was the biggest mistake I’ve made with The Magazine to date.

On January 3, we published And Read All Over, a bold piece by Jamelle Bouie about racial access barriers in the tech press. We got a good number of comments from our readers, but nothing out of the ordinary.

To attract the best writers, including people who already have their own sites with strong readerships, we allow authors to republish their articles on their own sites (or anywhere else) just 30 days after we publish them. Bouie did exactly that, as many of our authors have. Only then did his article explode into the huge discussion I suspected may result from it — and The Magazine wasn’t a part of it.

I think the biggest reason the discussion didn’t happen when we published it is that sharing links to The Magazine’s articles hasn’t really been a great proposition. You’d share a link, and everyone would just see the truncated teaser. Some of them would subscribe and see the rest, but most would get turned off by the truncation and just abandon the effort, as we web readers tend to do. Most people with big followings would quickly realize this and, understandably, avoid linking to our articles.

In response, Arment did two things. First, when you share an article to a friend, your friend can read the full article on the web. Second, you can subscribe and read The Magazine on the web. But Arment hasn’t gone all in. You get to read one article for free per month and that is it. But it is a start.

The claim, however, “you can now freely share links to your favorite stories from The Magazine,” is not correct. If I were to share an article with a friend, I have to think about whether I want to share that article or another one. It isn’t free in that I know they only have one shot each month. The tension here is obvious: how much sharing can you allow without it being too much?

That is a deep issue. But it goes further than that. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that Arment allowed full sharing with no real restrictions on shared links and that did not diminish paid subscriptions. Would that really drive demand through social referrals? The problem with a paid site is that someone not only has to be a subscriber but they have to be comfortable playing the role of a curator for their friends. Now what makes that work is that the curator wants their friend’s attention to be directed in a certain way so they can discuss the articles with them (or whatever else they might do). But that means that you settle into roles in terms of who is the referrer and who is the referee. The problem is that the person paying for the subscription is also kind of being asked to pay for being a filter for their friends. Now there may be a good social return on that but you can see that it may also be awkward.

I write this by way of posing the issue that social referrals are a tricky thing and we are far from working them out. For The Magazine, it isn’t really looking to get in on this and at the moment is just hoping that a little sharing may raise more awareness of its content. My guess is that channel won’t be that great.

Instead, it seems to me that the hope for paid content is to be very free on sharing but at the same time not to expect much from it in terms of payment. What seems more promising for payment is to hope that there is a share of your audience who does not want to monitor social filters and wants to read a large enough share of what you provide that they will subscribe to a convenient means of being alerted to new content — specifically, for it to appear in their Newstand on their iPad. Will people pay $1.99 a month for that? It is hard to say. They may if reading on the web exposes them to ads they don’t like. But perhaps that is a game Arment does not want to play.

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