Are Publishers Doomed to Repeat the Past With the ‘iStand’?

By Jay Lauf

As I spend more and more time with my iPad, some things have become more clear to me, and others seem more uncertain.

On the one hand, the overall experience of using the device proves to me that this really is a game-changer. The compelling imagery rendered on an exquisite screen—whether it’s my Real Golf 2011 game, my iTunes interface or my copy of The Atlantic, it’s beautiful to view and therefore gets more attention from me. The easy portability of the device and the “lean back” nature of the way you interact with it conspires with the look and feel to create an experience you can clearly see will be a lasting improvement in the way we consume media, be it print, video, games, etc.

Additionally, the easy, intuitive way you use the iPad confirms for me its revolutionary power. Both my 8-year-old daughter and my 89-year-old, technophobe father were bopping around on it without instruction from me or the manual that it didn’t come with it (more image-building brilliance from Apple).

But among the many things that are less clear and more daunting for those of us in the “magazine” business is that with the recent confirmation that Apple is getting ready to launch the iTunes of newsstands, we could be on the verge of ceding our content and customers to them.

As Russell Adams reported in WSJ last month, there are a lot of us who are concerned…but some who are less so. I’d urge us as an industry to stand strong in protecting our reader relationships. I’m ready to support options like Next Issue Media in their efforts to offer that protection, but we need to act quickly.

The dearth of data we currently get in the iPad relationship is already frustrating to us and our advertisers. Medialets, Flurry and others are starting to back-fill on this, but why add another third party in an already crowded space (just this week Ad Age was reporting on efforts to standardize measurement systems)?

What happens if an “iStand” supplants the newsstand in the way iTunes has supplanted the record store and it supplants our traditional means of driving subscriptions? Currently it means the characteristics and locations of readers we’ve long had a direct relationship with, whom we know so much about—which allows us to provide them better content and more meaningful ways to engage while also allowing us to better service our advertisers—will be in the hands of Apple, not us.

There is a world in which the digitization of the magazine experience yields even more and better data and mechanisms for us to improve all these elements of our business—CRM, tailored offerings, circ metrics, more targeted advertising. That’s an inevitable world, really. But if we need to pay or beg Apple for the privilege, it’s a world in which we’ll be wondering once again (think giving away content or erosion of the rate card): How’d we let that happen?

Minsider columnist Jay Lauf is publisher of The Atlantic.