Next Issue’s ‘Hulu for Magazines’ Hits the iPad

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Harry McCracken /

Back in April, a company called Next Issue Media launched its digital-magazine app. A joint venture of five big publishers–Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp and TIME’s owner, Time Inc.–it bundled a bunch of famous publications into a single app with all-you-can-read pricing.

If nothing else, it was an intriguing idea. But at the time, it was only available for Android tablets running Android 3.0, and so my reaction was, in large part, “this’ll get more interesting once it’s on the iPad.”

And now it is. Next Issue has released an iPad version of its app; the company recently briefed me on the new version and gave me early access to it.

Next Issue currently offers 39 titles, including many of the biggies from the founding publishers–such as Bon Appetit, Car and Driver, Esquire, Fortune, Golf, The New Yorker, People, Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated, TIME, Vogue  and Wired–but not all of them. (For instance, Condé Nast’s Details and Hearst’s Woman’s Day are MIA.) No publications from other companies, such as Businessweek, The Economist and National Geographic, are currently offered.

On the iPad, the app competes with Apple’s Newsstand, a built-in iOS feature which features the same magazines with the same presentation (including multimedia extras such as video clips, and downsides such as lack of support for the new iPad’s Retina display) Newsstand also has many more titles, plus newspapers. It can also download new issues in the background, a feature which Next Issue lacks. (Apple doesn’t provide Next Issue, or any third-party app, with the ability to do such useful behind-the-scenes downloads.)

So why would you read magazines in Next Issue’s app rather than Newsstand? Two reasons.

One is that Next Issue’s app is, indeed, one app. Newsstand isn’t an app–instead, it’s essentially a glorified folder that loosely aggregates individual magazine apps. Jumping between, say, TIME, The New Yorker and Popular Mechanics involves hopping between three apps with three different user interfaces.

In Next Issue, there’s one consistent interface for browsing and managing issues. You can specify how many magazines you want to keep on your iPad at any one time, and it’ll automatically delete old issues to make room for new ones. (You can always re-download old ones, or pin specific issues so they don’t get nuked.) Some of the specifics of how you navigate particular titles vary a bit–in Vanity Fair, for instance, you tap on photos to see their captions–but overall, it’s a much more cohesive experience than Newsstand.

The fact that the app can’t download new issues in the background turns out to be a downside, but not an overwhelming flaw. When you open an issue for the first time, it takes a few seconds to download an “index,” then lets you start reading before the entire issue is downloaded. As long as the app is open, it continues to download content in the background.

Next Issue’s second distinctive feature is its pricing. Just as in Newsstand, you can subscribe to individual titles, buy single issues and, if you’re a print subscriber, get digital issues that you’re entitled to receive. But you can also pay one flat fee for unlimited access to multiple magazines.

Actually, there are two flat fees: $9.99 a month gets you all 34 available titles with less-than-weekly frequency, from All You to Wired. $14.99 a month gets you those, plus the five weeklies (Entertainment Weekly, People, Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker and, ahem, TIME). You can “subscribe” to as many of the titles you pay for as you want, or sample individual issues. If an article is in a magazine that’s among Next Media’s offerings, there’s no reason not to read it.

Whether those prices–basically, either $120 a year or $180 a year–are a bargain depends on your perspective, whether you’d be paying for digital magazines if Next Issue didn’t exist and the percentage of its 39 titles which appeal to you. If you’re actually paying for multiple digital magazines on an individual basis, it’s not hard to meet or exceed the cost of Next Issue: People alone, for instance, is $110 a year, and The New Yorker is $60. Pooling your magazine monies into a Next Issue subscription could make sense pretty quickly, and would also get you access to additional magazines you’d either read not at all or as individual issues bought off either Apple’s Newsstand or a real-world one.

If the digital magazines you’re paying for aren’t among Next Issue’s 39 titles, the math quickly falls apart. (At least for now–the company says it plans to add more titles, including ones from additional publishers.)

Of course, relatively few people are springing for multiple digital magazine subscriptions at all. If you do most of your reading on the web, where there’s an infinite amount of great stuff available for free–including some of the content in these magazines–$120 is almost certainly going to sound pricey, and $180 only more so.

It’s tempting to want Next Issue to be something that will make magazine lovers out of people who have drifted away from magazines, or never got into them in the first place. If it were radically cheaper–for instance, if it matched Netflix and Hulu Plus’s $7.99/month price–it might.

With the current price points, though, I think that its real audience is people who are already voracious readers of big-name magazines in either dead-tree or digital form, or both. The iPad app will let these folks read a lot of them in one place, and might help them discover some great journalism in publications they’d otherwise ignore. For that reason, I’m glad it’s here–even if it’s more likely to fill a niche than change the game, at least with the current pricing and title lineup.

(Additional full disclosure, just in case: TIME publisher Time Inc. is a partner in Next Issue Media.)