Condé Nast Is Experiencing Technical Difficulties

While other media rushed online, Condé Nast dug in its Louboutin heels. Now, with its much ballyhooed iPad play stalling out--so 2010!--the knives are out for digital wonder boy Scott Dadich.

IN THE FOURTH FLOOR conference room, Mr. Dadich preached his new gospel with the relentless enthusiasm of a mystical prophet. His crystal ball was showing nothing but iPad. Sales projections for Apple’s magic screenwere thrown around with exuberance. Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s our future.

All that sounded promising enough. But there was a catch: there would be no dedicated hires. Instead, existing art and production staffers from the print side would be responsible for making two iPad layouts (one in portrait and one in landscape, per Mr. Dadich’s vision) on Adobe’s platform. The idea was that since Condé Nast used Adobe’s InDesign and InCopy software to create its magazines, sticking with Adobe would make repurposing content easier. Based in Silicon Valley, Adobe had seen where the business was heading and was building software to get into the tablet game. In fact, the first Wired app was built with a lot of Adobe manpower and then rebuilt when Apple banned the Flash system Adobe had been using from the iPad.

Despite the setbacks Wired had encountered, Mr. Dadich made it all sound simple. “What we’re going to do is have workflow specialists come in, so it’ll be actually less work,” a source recalls him saying.

“I think that’s a terrible idea,” says Khoi Vinh, former design director and author of the highly regarded design blog Subtraction. (A sign of Mr. Vinh’s influence: he boasts 210,267 Twitter followers to Mr. Dadich’s 3,155.) Mr. Vinh is highly critical of Condé’s print-centric, “magazine replica” approach to the tablet. “It’s like going to a Broadway stage crew, who are very talented at what they’re doing, and saying, ‘Can you help us create the next summer movie blockbuster?’” he told The Observer, adding, “I think it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the way design works.”

Wall Street Journal director of design technology Erin Sparling felt the same way about retasking print folks to design for the iPads simply because they had used Adobe programs before. “That’s crazy,” Mr. Sparling told The Observer. “The assumption that it’s the same thing, just with a different output, is absolutely wrong. Just tacking it onto employees’ responsibilities seems like a recipe for making all of those employees very sad.”

It’s certainly been a culture shock. Some sources say art departments at titles like Vanity Fair, Glamour, GQ and Allure have had to give up their coveted down weeks between issues—time they once spent visiting museums and dreaming up gorgeous new layouts—in favor of working late on weeknights and weekends to produce pages in Adobe. They’re worried that burnout will turn to a morale problem, if not the makings of a full-scale mutiny.

Two talented digital designers, Chris Gonzalez, director of mobile product management at Condé Nast, and Vince Holleran, who helped create the New Yorker’s iPad app, both recently departed for Gilt Groupe. Anton Ioukhnovets, a former GQ art director, left the magazine last September after seven years for reasons unrelated to the iPad. Nonetheless, he said, “I saw it coming, and I was not interested. I didn’t want to do two jobs for the for the price of one.” He called the iPad “the bane” of his former colleagues’ existence.

In a statement emailed to The Observer, Condé president Bob Sauerberg, said, “From the start, we recognized both the opportunities and the inherent challenges of a new technology and medium. We have been aggressive in our digital development and we know the path to success can be bumpy. We believe in the talents and of our editorial teams to create their own apps—entrusting the design to those who have built our magazines. We are gratified with the way consumers are responding and we are extremely proud of what our teams have accomplished.”

While Condé swells with pride, there’s another aspect of its iPad initiative that baffles outsiders. Why lock in a partnership with Adobe while the market is still shaking out? “You don’t do a biz dev deal to get on the iPad! You just do an app,” said a source familiar with Condé’s digital operations.

“We, like our colleagues across the industry, are collectively inventing a new medium,” Wired’s editor-in-chief Chris Anderson said in another statement emailed to The Observer. “This is an exciting opportunity and our designers both want and deserve to be part of it. Designers come to Wired to innovate; this has the potential to be the most innovative thing we’ve done.”

That said, the transition might be a more natural one for Wired and its gadget-fiend readers. The latest unaudited numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulation show Wired’s digital downloads capping at an average of 27,369 per month for the six months ending this past December. (For context, its first iPad App got more than 100,000 that month.) GQ’s app has less than half of that, with an average of 12,377 per month for those same six months, and Vanity Fair clocked in at just 9,438. Glamour’s iPad app, which was released in August, had a mere 2,471  monthly average for downloads. Condé seems buoyant about new circulation numbers coming out in August, pointing out that The New Yorker was the top grossing app in the App Store for most of the week after introducing a subscription offer.

Meanwhile, the numbers for the Nook, which requires little more effort than uploading PDFs of pages, are surging, and in some cases surpassing iPad sales.

In addition to dipping a toe into the Nook, Condé Nast is sniffing around Hewlett-Packard’s tablet. In April, AdAge reported that it hit the brakes on plans to deliver iPad editions across all its titles, saying they now need justification before launching an iPad edition. But the rhetoric of redemption remains. In a recent interview for Nieman Journalism Labs, Mr. Dadich was still backing the iTunes newsstand and the “dedicated container” for content that an app provides on an iPad, “where covers are the primary means of purchase and browsing.” To which one commenter replied, “All I see when reading this is an entire organization screaming, ‘WE WANT IT TO BE THE EIGHTIES GODDAMMIT.’”

Condé Nast Is Experiencing Technical Difficulties