Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Katy Perry's Three Lessons About People Magazine

I went ahead and downloaded the new People magazine app and spent $3.99 for the August 30th issue—the first available for my iPad. I thought it would be interesting to review it here, and to compare it to the print version. (The similarities, or dissimilarities, between the two is a big issue in the photo business these days. See below.)

I liked reading the magazine on my iPad, very much, indeed. I thought it was one of the better looking, easy-to-navigate magazine apps I've experienced so far. The magazine's pastel  backgrounds and celebrity pictures looked dynamic—more so than in print, where they achieve a different, trashier charm.  There is a photo of Jennifer Aniston in the "Star Tracks" section (by Paul Buck, credited to the European Press Agency) that is modestly spectacular. It's a red-carpet photo taken at the Hollywood premier for Aniston's movie The Switch, and I usually find no interest in red-carpet photos. (They are the celebrity-photography equivalent of reality TV—a real moment, but not really real, because the celebrities are performing.)
Aniston by Buck: It's better on an iPad
You can't tell from the image as you see it here, but on my iPad, the Aniston photo has dimensional depth and the compositional interest of a very good studio picture, so it really stands out. I'm afraid my iPad made many of the photos in the issue look more interesting than they really are.

The iPad may be a perfect place for a magazine like People, with short articles that don't require much acuity on the part of the reader. (Didn't someone say that iPad mag apps were going to save long-form journalism? TBD.)

Another item on the plus side: This issue comes with a short video intro by Katy Perry, who is lovely, and she shows how to scroll through the contents a story at a time by using the two-fingered-swipe method. Personally, I could watch her do it all day. She also shows you how to do it with one finger, and by tapping. 

As a former magazine editor, I was also intrigued to find that the layout for the print version's cover, with the Sandra Bullock photo on the right, was different from the iPad version, where the Bullock photo is on the left. I can only conclude that the print version was done in order to get as many sell lines on the left side, where they are more likely to be seen on newsstands.

I am certainly not People's target audience, so I confirmed my generally positive feelings by having my college-age daughter read the magazine on my iPad. She loved it, she said—especially the video Q&A with Julia Roberts, the video previews of fall TV shows, the video "back-stage tour" of the Project Runway set with Heidi Klum—and the fact that she can tap on a music review to buy an album on iTunes. (There goes the tuition fund.)

Would she be willing to pay the $3.99 price for the iPad issue? Yes, because she buys it on the newsstand anyway (at least when we're shopping together at the supermarket and I'm paying).

The big news, of course, about this issue of People is that subscribers to the print version can get the app version for free. Until now, consumers have had to pay full newsstand prices for mag apps. And that has probably held back sales: According to this survey, consumers are ambivalent about mag apps so far, probably due to price sensitivity. The best-reviewed app, from Popular Mechanics, sells for $1.99, compared with the usual $3.99 or $4.99 for other titles.

Magazine publishers want to build mass app audiences, and, as  reports, they will likely follow the People magazine pricing breakthrough, selling subscriptions so that consumers can buy iPad versions of magazines at discounted subscription rates. My only question is: Why did this take so long? (Here's the answer. It's all about Steve Jobs's desire to create a digital ecosystem in which every financial transaction rewards Apple.)

Paparazzi vs. People
Photography bloggers have been interested in this issue of People because of another impasse over pricing policy. As noted here and here, a number of agencies that supply celebrity images to People have banded together to demand extra payment for pictures repurposed for iPads. Time Inc. has been saying that the images aren't being repurposed at all—that the app is just an extension of the print product.

As we all learned from Peter Pan, this has all happened before, and it will all happen again. A decade or so ago I spent a lot of time covering the legal dispute between the National Geogaphic Society and photographer Jerry Greenberg, who objected to the repurposed use of his images on a CD-ROM archive of the magazine's issues. Every time a new technology comes along, the same issues come up. And disputes like this are usually most intense at the beginning, because precedents set early tend to determine the ultimate winners and losers. (Photographers and photo agencies, which have seen their pricing privileges erode over the past 20 years, know this all too well.) This particular dispute comes after a period of declining profits for both agencies and magazines, and my rule of thumb is that people fight hardest when resources are scarce.

When I looked at the People app, it seemed fairly clear that the finished product was essentially different from the print version. Let the negotiating begin.

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