You must have noticed how thin some magazines have gotten in recent years. Starved of advertising revenue as the Internet has scattered consumer attention, magazines appear to be ailing and weak. But perhaps an app will save them?
That seems to be the pitch for Next Issue Canada. Billed as "the Netflix for magazines," the recently announced tablet app gives consumers an all-you-can-eat meal of their favourite periodicals. Readers can pay 10 dollars a month for unlimited access to over a hundred Canadian and American monthlies, and can pay an extra five dollars for such weeklies as Maclean's or The New Yorker.
Particularly for Canadians used to waiting forever for shiny new media services, it seems like an exciting, novel proposition. For all its apparent benefits, though, there's an argument to be made that Next Issue is one more outdated print idea for a digital age – and that, worse, it doesn't address the real problem consumers have of being unable to wade through too much information.
It's tempting to think that digital technology only changes the container of media. That's what drives a concept like Next Issue, which treats magazines like individual silos, and understandably so, as that's how owners, editors and writers still see them. But digital versions actually change the expectations we have of the form of media, so individual magazines make less sense than the curated nature of personalized digital "publications" that in fact change the definition of that term.
It's not that Next Issue doesn't have some compelling aspects. It takes the Web's capacity to centralize media in one convenient place and then applies it to magazines, expanding choice and greatly simplifying subscriptions. That kind of buffet-style approach to media is what has made services like Netflix so popular, and with new services from Scribd and Oyster that apply the same concept to ebooks, it's an idea that's clearly spreading.
But Netflix also succeeds because, while it has thousands of titles in its overall catalogue, its algorithms excel at filtering through the glut to tailor a selection for your taste. That pairing – a huge variety, but an easy way to filter through it – forms the basis of the appeal of the very best digital media.
Next Issue or any service that claims to modernize reading would need to do at least that. After all, very few people are sitting around thinking to themselves "Gosh, I wish I could find more things to read." Quite to the contrary, the problem for digital media – especially for the contemporary focus of magazines – is that finding what's good among the morass of choice is really hard, a problem that Next Issue doesn't even appear to try and solve. Simply adding an all-in-one subscription to magazines or books doesn't fundamentally change what you can get from your average modern library.
It's for that reason that, as others have pointed out, magazine reading habits have changed. The advent of "social magazines" like Flipboard and Zite has seen the rise of using social media and algorithms to produce personal digital media culled from many sources. If people were once loyal to one or two publications, they now read "promiscuously" – and are arguably getting better and more relevant material as a result.
Yet these issues regarding discovery or information overload are only one part of the equation. As Netflix learned, having the content is the start of digital media, not its end goal. Many of the benefits of digital reading–search, sharing, following a single author, timeshifting to other services like Instapaper, and so on – are also missing from Next Issue. This is all to make no mention of the fact that much of this content can already be viewed on these magazines' websites, for free, and with those benefits still intact. It's hard, therefore, to not feel that Next Issue is an outdated print idea that's been given a digital gloss.
That said, it's still hard to entirely fault the project's backers, who are stuck between two unpalatable options. Simply follow reader behaviour and the nitty-gritty of revenue models and editorial direction and quality become very difficult problems to solve; stick to the past and get left behind by your audience. Alas, Next Issue seems to pick the worst from either side of the binary, neither adapting to new reading habits nor changing the idea of a magazine, and is likely to remain a niche product for a small group of enthusiasts.
These are the troublesome paradoxes digital technology has wrought. As such, the "next issue" for people peddling media – especially the kind of longform cultural criticism that magazines traffic in – isn't how to repackage print as a digital replica. It is instead how to pragmatically deliver culture and news to people in the ways they want, all while making money. Perhaps that will require exploding the idea of the magazine, or maybe it's a question of a whole new business model.
Either way, as once-thick magazines continue to grow lighter, it's clear that time is not on the publishing industry's side.
Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. He can be found on Twitter at @navalang