For the most part, the digital versions of publications are the same as the paper versions — with some extra video and interactive features. Some of them are quite good. But when speaking of digital news delivery today, there's an important distinction: website v. app.
While both are accessible via the iPad, each has its pros and cons.
Magazine and newspaper websites have been around for a while. Readers are used to them and are familiar with surfing the web with their browsers — and many publications' sites are free or mostly free. That is changing, however, as some outlets are beginning to charge for certain content, such as the New York Times, which rolls out its paywall today.
The app versions tend to be more expensive. In some cases, the app may not offer a better user experience than the publication's website because of clunky navigation and crashing or freezing. One advantage of an app is that once an issue has been downloaded to a tablet, it's there regardless of whether the web is accessible.
Generally speaking, digital newspaper access is cheaper than the paper version, but digital magazines are more expensive than their hard-copy counterparts.
It sounds counter-intuitive that a digital magazine should cost more than a paper version, which needs to be physically manufactured, printed and delivered. But, in the case of most magazines, a true digital subscription is not available. Readers must purchase each individual digital issue separately, often at the full or nearly full newsstand price.
"People were expecting if you're getting the stuff digitally, it would be a lot cheaper than what it costs at a newsstand," said Peter Kafka, a senior editor at AllThingsDigital.com. "The reason the publishers haven't done that is because they haven't figured out how they want to price this stuff long-term. So rather than cut the prices right away, they're saying we're going to keep them up high, and as we can we'll lower them."
One obstacle publishers face in figuring out how to price digital subscriptions is the deal Apple has offered them. Last month, Apple announced it would enable magazine subscriptions in exchange for a 30 percent cut of the revenue. In addition, Apple would retain control of all subscriber data, severing a relationship with the reader that publishers value. And Apple would require publishers to offer their subscriptions on iTunes at the same price or lower than elsewhere even though Apple's cut would make those subscriptions less profitable. While publishers could sell iPad subscriptions on their own websites and keep all the revenue and customer data, they know the power of iTunes.
Meanwhile, just after Apple set out it terms, Google came out with its own competing payment system for digital subscriptions, which would take just a 10 percent cut of the revenue and allow publishers to keep their customer data, so they can maintain a direct relationship with their customers.
Kafka said the Google system is really more theoretical since not a lot of publishers are working with them at this point.
Caught in the middle are consumers. Since publishers are holding out for better subscription terms, readers who want to download their favorite magazines onto the iPad must go the route of buying individual issues, which gets expensive, compared to print subscription prices.
"The magazine guys feel like they made a big mistake over the last couple of decades, discounting their [print] subscriptions so heavily," said Kafka. "I think they'd like to walk that back a bit, but fundamentally they're still an ad-driven business and they want their stuff as widely distributed as possible, so at some point they are going to try to get more of these things into the hands of the readers and that will mean dropping the prices."
ALL DIGITAL OR NOT?
There's no easy answer to that question since there are many factors that go into it. It comes down to individual circumstances, including the particular publication(s) one is interested in and what they offer. Then there's the trade-off between cost and convenience, how much content one wants, even the environmental implications of paper v. no paper.
With the iPad just over a year old, and many other tablets hitting the market, it may be too soon to go all digital for your portable read at this point. Some publications only offer a digital version to their print subscribers. Others have apps that may prove more frustrating than enjoyable.
Depending on all the factors, the best option is likely a hybrid approach including some print, some websites and some apps.