Tablets From Above

If you ever hear about a company whose new technology is going to save magazines from extinction … short it. You’ll make a killing.

Step back in time. The old list of possible solutions to the magazine industry’s existential crisis is a long one: a perfect electronic replica of ink-and-paper editions, in PDF format; Web sites loaded with social networking features and user-generated content; mobile phone editions; flexible e-paper; print-on-demand copies and on and on it goes.

Cumulative net difference made by all of the above to the survival prospects of magazines: zero.

But now there’s a new savior on the horizon, and, hoo boy, this one is really going to change everything. The deus ex machina du jour involves notepad-size wireless computers with full-color, touch-screen displays. Publishers are tripping over themselves in their haste to be ready when the first of these devices hits the market later this year. Wired and Sports Illustrated have already shown off demos. (Both feature a gadget thought to resemble Apple’s mythical and much-drooled-over tablet, which may or may not be called the iSlate.) And then, as The Observer’s John Koblin first reported, the four biggest magazine companies (four horsemen?)—Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst and Meredith—are teaming up to develop the applications necessary to make such e-editions a reality. Meanwhile, Hearst is working on its own reader, the Skiff (a name that has occasioned the predictable life-raft jokes).

Taken together, it’s a kind of Manhattan Project for magazines. Will it succeed in splitting the atom? Alas, probably not in the way publishers are hoping. Despite the wishful thinking of people like New York Times media writer David Carr, who sees “an opportunity to renew the romance between printed material and consumer,” the tablet won’t be a broad bridge over which magazines will be able to skip en masse across the chasm they’re now toeing. Some of them will make it to the other side, yes, but in much diminished form, while others will get there and flourish but mutate so much in the process as to become unrecognizable.

The fashionable thing these days is to embrace that mutation as though it were in fact the plan all along. If I had a quarter for every exec who smugly told me he’s in the business of selling “brands, not magazines,” I could afford a first-generation iSlate. Or whatever it’s called.

But a magazine isn’t just a brand wrapped around some words and pictures; it’s also a product, one whose nature is decidedly antithetical to the demands of the digital economy. Magazines are, above all, packages for diverse kinds of content: features, celebrity profiles, reader service, fashion, charticles—and, of course, glossy ads whose value to marketers derives from their adjacency to high-grade consumer porn. The digital universe, however, abhors a package. The first law of the Internet—and everything is the Internet now—is this: Anything that can be dis-aggregated will be. Once it was possible to sell albums; now, thanks to iTunes, music labels have to settle for selling songs. Once it was possible to sell newspapers; now the savvy reader cherry-picks headlines on Google News.

Magazine publishers are so gung-ho on the tablet because it holds out the promise of maintaining the integrity of the product-as-package. If an e-magazine is sufficiently beautiful and seamless to browse, this thinking goes, consumers will be willing to purchase and enjoy it as a whole, ads and all, just as they do with an ink-and-paper magazine. But people don’t buy physical magazines because they’re attractive and user-friendly; they buy them because buying a whole magazine was, pre-Web, the only way to get magazine-style content.

That’s not to say there aren’t consumers out there who will prefer complete, artfully packaged e-magazines to a la carte content chunks. There are, just as there are connoisseurs who collect all the back issues of Might and Nest. They’re simply a niche audience.

Nor is it to say some magazine companies won’t create successful products for tablets/e-readers. Some no doubt will.

But whatever they create, it won’t be magazines. Those are going away.

Jeff Bercovici is the media columnist for AOL’s DailyFinance