2016: When Tablet Magazines Get to Die

Image by John Federico, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Magazine editors from around the country (or, really, New York City and a couple other places) are meeting today at Columbia University to determine the winners of the 2016 National Magazine Awards. And for the first time since 2012, they will not have to pretend that tablet magazines are worthy of celebration.

The American Society of Magazine Editors, the professional organization that administers the National Magazine Awards (known as ASMEs or Ellies), first gave National Geographic the Calder elephant in the Tablet Edition category in 2012. National Geographic won the category, re-named “Tablet Magazine,” in 2013, 2014, and 2015. ASME retired the category this year.

To be fair, ASME reviews and changes its reward categories regularly. For example, ASME reduced the coveted General Excellence award, which recognizes magazines in different verticals, to four categories from six in 2016. (Farewell, “Active Interest.”) It makes sense to reconsider how a changing industry honors its best.

But something about the end of the tablet category feels more significant, like a quiet acknowledgment of the industry’s failure to innovate. Yes, tablets didn’t sell like smartphones, but there are still a lot of them out there. According to the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of U.S. adults owned a tablet in 2015, compared to the 68 percent who owned a smartphone. Apple’s Newsstand ghetto didn’t help, either. But blame the magazine industry for tablet magazines’ failure to launch.

ASME’s call for entries in 2015 said that “tablet magazines need not duplicate the frequency of content of sibling print editions.” But in reality, tablet magazines did have to duplicate print editions. The Alliance for Audited Media sets the rules for how magazines report circulation (copies distributed) and rate base, the average circulation level that determines ad rates. Tablet magazines, AAM determined, could be included in the rate base — and therefore be counted for advertising purposes — only if they included “all the same editorial content in the print.” Magazines could include enhanced content suitable for tablets, such as videos or interactive elements, but only on top of the magazine’s original editorial, art, and ads “presented in a manner consistent with the print issue.”

Something about the end of the tablet award feels significant — a quiet acknowledgment of the industry’s failure to innovate.

The magazine industry, desperate to bolster flagging circulation, utilized this exciting new platform by … offering mostly replica versions of the print magazines. Innovation, costly to begin with, was bad for business. Titles like Popular Mechanics, Wired, and National Geographic, whose editorial mission seemed a natural fit for tablets, could do little more than tack on multimedia shackled to the format and presentation of a print editions. And to access this content, the user had to remember to open the newsstand once a month and download a giant file. For that kind of content, why bother?

The audience had little use for consuming magazines this way. National Geographic, whose tablet magazine was the only winner of a National Magazine Award in the history of the category, had a total circulation of 3.5 million in 2014 (the most recent data publicly available). The digital replica circulation: 164,408. Editors have to make difficult financial choices these days. Expending resources on a product that comprises only 5 percent of the readership is an easy cut. If a title doesn’t outright abandon its tablet edition soon, look for scaled-back, PDFish versions like the kind carried by Texture. There’s zero incentive to try anything else.

So goodbye, tablet magazine. CueCat can’t wait to meet you.