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Why I stopped reading magazines with Newsstand

When the iPad first came out, I was really excited about its potential as a replacement for paper magazines. Back in 2010, shortly before the iPad was announced, I wrote that “the most important feature it may contain will be the ability to save the press from its demise.” I was bullish about the future of publishing on tablets. But while I still feel that tablets will come to change the way we consume “print” media, the current solution for magazines on the iPad—Apple’s Newsstand app—simply doesn’t work.

I like magazines, I read several of them regularly, and have done so for many years. I thought that the iPad-plus-Newsstand combo would offer me several advantages over the traditional paper model. In particular, magazines could be cheaper. Since I live in the U.K., any U.S. magazines I want to read are really expensive; because of shipping costs, I can’t benefit from those dollar-an-issue offers that Americans can. U.K. magazines tend to be even pricier, and subscriptions to them aren’t discounted the way they are in the States. So the savings of subscribing digitally—to U.S. magazines at least—can be substantial. For example, I’m a long-time reader of The New Yorker; you can get a print subscription for $110 a year, but the digital version is only $60.

With savings like that, Newsstand looks attractive. But in actuality it has several problems—enough to keep me from using it.

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The potential is there, but the reality is disappointing.

Out of sight

First, it’s too easy to forget about. With print magazines, I get them in the mail, then toss them on a coffee table or on a pile in my office. When I want something to read, I just grab an issue from one of those piles and read it. The fact is that I simply forget about magazines when they don’t come through my mail slot.

Which is, of course, the case with Newsstand. Because it’s an app-that’s-really-a-folder, which houses multiple individual magazine apps, I often don’t know that I have new issues. If each magazine app lived on my home screen, I’d be more likely to open it. But when it’s hidden away in that folder, I don’t. I’m not the only one who finds the app-as-enclosing-folder model an impediment to reading; Macworld’s Jason Snell does, too.

Sure, I could configure push notifications for each title, but I don’t: They’re unreliable, and when I have a dozen or more notifications on my lock screen, I scroll through them, register the important ones, then move on; if one of them is for a magazine that I’m not going to read right away, chances are I’ll forget it altogether.

The downloads issue

The second big problem I have is with downloads. For many of the Newsstand magazines I read (which happen to be built on the same platform), downloads are frequently flaky. I have a slow Internet connection, and downloads often stop, fail, or result in corruption issues; I then need to redownload them.

Few of my magazines offer automatic downloads; for those that do, they simply don’t work. Trying to download a recent issue of The New Republic in particular was so frustrating that I simply gave up and cancelled my subscription. I don’t think my bandwidth is the only problem; that wouldn’t explain why downloads of certain magazines fail more than others. But if the process isn’t frictionless, I don’t want it.

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All too often, Newsstand downloads flake out.

Portability is a third concern. I don’t tend to carry my iPad in my knapsack when I’m out. I do, however, like to toss one or two magazines in it if I’m going to have some down time or or if I’m traveling on a train. And I like taking hot baths occasionally; when I do so, I like to read. But while I’m fine bringing a magazine into the tub with me, I wouldn’t dare do the same with my iPad.

Finally, I find reading magazines on an iPad frustrating. I remember when Newsstand first became available, and I eagerly subscribed to Wired. But I found the navigation so confusing I eventually gave up: Sometimes you swipe, sometimes you scroll, sometimes there are bits of text hidden behind not-very-obvious buttons, and a lot of the time I had trouble telling the ads from the content. While some magazines are nicely redesigned for reading on an iPad, others are simply rendered as full-size print pages, reduced in size for the iPad’s screen. Sure, you can zoom in, but moving a page around to read a story in large enough type is annoying.

A bad reading experience

There are some good magazines designed specifically for mobile devices, such as Glenn Fleishman’s The Magazine and Jim Dalrymple’s The Loop Magazine (Disclaimer: I have contributed to both of these magazines). Designed to be read on mobile devices, both these magazines are all about the text, have no ads, and are as readable on an iPad as on an iPhone. But others are too wedded to their analog formats to work well on digital devices.

I’m not alone in disliking digital magazines. As Jon Lund has noted, only 12 percent of Wired’s subscriptions, and only 5 percent of The New Yorker’s, were digital in 2013. Many popular magazines—including People, Vanity Fair, and Popular Science—report similarly paltry numbers. (To be fair, many print subscribers may also use digital, and it may actually be cheaper, in some cases, to buy a print subscription which also includes digital access than to buy digital only, so these numbers may not represent the real number of people who actually read these magazines digitally.)

The result of all these problems is that I’ve decided to turn off auto-renew for all of my digital-magazine subscriptions (with the exceptions of The Magazine and The Loop), and I’ve cancelled any that I can. I may subscribe to a couple of these magazines in print—but given the cost of doing so, I’ll certainly be more choosy. But I won’t be going back to digital until the publishers work out some of these kinks.

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