An iTunes for magazines?

Magazine publishers may now be looking at the iTunes model, which has been so successful at connecting with consumers on a paying basis, for help with the digital future. Thanks to the Daily Media News Feed, we are alerted to stories in The New York Observer and The Wrap (which has a nice summary of a few notable paid content initiatives out there right now) about the efforts of former Time Inc-er, John Squires, to rally magazine publishing companies to a new, sustainable, digital model. iTunes is discussed in both places as the progenitor of what may result from such a collaboration. Whatever evolves, John Squires is quoted as saying in The New York Observer, "With magazines, the form has to change." It appears he is out to re-design magazines for a digital world.

The iTunes model will not do that for him on its own. iTunes has been wonderfully liberating to consumers not because songs only cost 99 cents, but because once upon a time in order to own a song it cost $14.00 for the CD or album. It wasn't that consumers were unwilling to pay $14.00 for the one song they craved on an album, it was that it came with so many other songs for which they had no craving at all. CDs took a convenient step forward vs. albums by introducing advanced programmability - specifically, the ability to search for and play a desired song, skipping over the rest without having to get up and move the needle forward or back on a spinning turntable. iTunes took it to the next level, making it possible to buy songs one at a time, with even more programmability.

This is not a remedy offering much hope to magazines. Fortunately, John Squires may understand that, at least per The Observer piece where he says, "Unlike books and music, I think [for magazines] it involves designing a new product in order for it to be something that consumers really love."

What do consumers really love about magazines? They love discovery. Magazines delight readers with the unexpected things, which may be why it is so hard to translate the business opportunity into a cost-per-pleasing-new-fact-or-insight. The very thing that makes magazines innately desirable is the thing that is hard to put a price on. It is, in fact, all the "other stuff", in contrast to what users sought on albums and CDs.

What is the price of this sort of serendipity? How does one bottle it in a digital world where there is so little peripheral vision - where it is all sharp angles and edges, and pointless searches down one rabbit hole after another?

People don't pay for content. Perhaps this is why: it is not content they are buying. It is experience. It is the pleasing discovery of things they did not know they wanted to know, connected usually to their interests at heart. We will pay for personal enrichment. No wonder it appears the interest-based magazines that come into our house are thriving, but the general-interest based magazines we see elsewhere are not. Where our interests lie, so does our desire to be led (and our willingness to pay).

This means a struggle for all those magazines and - especially - newspapers that would charge for content online. And for magazines, John Squires says, "the form has to change."

That should be interesting.