After only five issues as a paid-for app, The Huffington Post’s tablet magazine Huffington will now be completely free to download.
The magazine was welcomed into the world with a rooftop party at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York and presented as a premium content product; a single issue was priced at 99 cents and consumers could buy monthly and annual subscriptions for $1.99 and $19.99 respectively. Speaking to reporters after the magazine’s launch, Executive Editor Tim O’Brien explained the decision to charge for access to content, saying: "We feel it's a premium product and it deserves to carry a price with it in order to access all the value we're giving people."
Now, just over a month since Huffington hit the iTunes store, the subscription scheme has been scrapped. O’Brien gave an interview to Capital New York after the changes were revealed, telling the local newspaper that asking people to subscribe to the magazine was ‘inconsistent with The Huffington Post itself.” He later admitted that, although he was still convinced that it was a premium product, he hadn’t appreciated how much users would ‘hate’ having to pay for the magazine.
When the idea for the publication was first conceived, it was thought that Huffington would simply serve as a collection of existing content already found on huffingtonpost.com and as such would not follow a paid model. However, as ideas for the magazine began to develop, Huffington became an emblem of Arianna Huffington’s "slow news" project. Its long-form articles were intended to provide the kind of in-depth analysis that often finds itself sidelined in the fast-paced world of Internet journalism. Describing the magazine in a post published on huffington.post.com, Huffington expressed her belief that “[it] is a manifestation of [a] longing to disconnect from the hurly-burly of our hyper-connected lives.” In the past month Huffington has attracted around 115,000 subscribers, but as each reader was given a month’s free subscription, it is uncertain as to how much reader-generated revenue the magazine achieved.
It seems that the faith executives originally showed in their digital product has begun to wane, perhaps as a result of hearing earlier this week that fellow tablet-magazine The Daily was being forced to reduce its staff by almost a third. Huffington will now be relying solely on advertising revenue, which could be problematic for the publication: at present its only advertiser is its launch partner, Toyota. Having abandoned a paying model, perhaps Huffington will be able to attract a greater number of people willing to engage with the product, which will of course make it a more attractive prospect to advertisers.
Even if the changes put in place at Huffington and The Daily do manage to make a success of tablet-only publications, the events of this past week clearly demonstrate the difficulties publishers have in understanding their audience’s use of technology for content consumption. Publishers appear to have assumed that the iPad would become a new source of revenue by serving as the platform for individual apps. The problem with this assumption is that it ignores the fact that consumers are used to gathering news information from a variety of sources, be they social networks such as Twitter and Facebook or newspaper websites; turning to a single publication, that has to be paid for, becomes a rather limiting experience. What’s more, whilst publishers are getting quite excited about new ways of distributing content, they are failing to innovate in terms of content. Despite Rupert Murdoch’s declaration that “new times demand new journalism,” The Daily’s visually beautiful app has been criticised for being “everything and nothing special at the same time,” while over at Huffington the initial idea of creating a new, potentially free app just to bring together material that could be found elsewhere is surely an indication that more attention was being paid to the magazine’s medium and not its message.