There was a time when blogging wasn’t easy. Before the days of Tumblr, WordPress, and Blogger, you likely needed to be a coder if you wanted to write online. As Ryan Singer recently put it at Signal vs. Noise, “You had to know databases and webhosts and PHP or Perl. If you were ‘just’ a web designer, or a writer with ideas, you had to hire an in-demand web programmer to make it happen. Publishing was expensive and hard.”
Thanks to people like Ev Williams, the Trotts, and Matt Mullenweg, that barrier fell away — but a new one popped up if you want to publish your writing in a nifty package on a smartphone or tablet. If you want an app, you’ll likely need a developer.
29th Street Publishing is one of a number of startups that aims to change that by making it (relatively) simple for publishers to make magazine apps for Apple’s Newsstand. They worked on The Awl’s Weekend Companion, the recently launched weekly magazine app from the popular New York blogging mini-empire, and 29th Street CEO David Jacobs tells me they are working with around a dozen other publishers. Jacobs said for bloggers, individual writers, or larger publishers, technology should be of secondary concern to the writing.
“Very much like Movable Type and WordPress, we want to be a tool people can use to have their work go further and make deeper relationships with their readers,” he said. That approach is something Jacobs and one of his 29th Street cofounders, Natalie Podrazik, understand, since both came from Six Apart, the company responsible for blogging software like Movable Type and TypePad. (29th Street’s team also includes, among others, former NewYorker.com editor Blake Eskin and blogger-since-the-early-days Greg Knauss.)
That experience shows in the new company’s software, a CMS for publishing magazines for iOS devices. Publishing to a Newsstand app looks a lot like publishing a blog post, a matter of filling in fields — but instead of hitting “Publish” and winding up at a URL, you pop up ready for purchase on iPads and iPhones. In the case of The Awl, The Weekend Companion is a compilation of longer stories published each week, which allows editors to pick and choose which articles land in a particular issue.
Even with the prospect of paying Apple a 30 percent cut of sales, smaller publishers find Newsstand appealing for the same reasons as their larger peers: access to a rapidly growing mobile audience, a user-friendly payment system, the potential for recurring subscription revenue, and the ease of background downloads. A company like 29th Street offers a relatively quick path to that, while sharing revenue with their publishers. You can think of it as part of a trend toward smaller Internet publications or, as Craig Mod recently labeled it, “subcompact publishing.”
29th Street won’t be for everyone. Larger publishers can build their own apps and hold on to their own revenue. But there’s a sea of blogs and individual writers who are looking to give their audience a better reading experience in mobile apps and would like to make a few dollars in the process. Instapaper’s Marco Arment, in creating The Magazine, said his goals were to ditch the expense and baggage that comes along with making a magazine for the iPad. He wrote:
Instead of the traditional labor-intensive magazine layout and expensive multimedia production, The Magazine’s article format is similar to Instapaper’s: one clean, adjustable, reader-friendly template with HTML, occasional images, and some small conveniences. It loads quickly, integrates well with sharing and system conventions (including text selection and VoiceOver), occupies minimal storage space, and shows the utmost respect for your time and attention.
When I asked Choire Sicha, editor of The Awl, about 29th Street, he also evoked the democratizing influence of blogging software’s early days. “The reason we get along so well is that they understand that healthy publishing businesses are built from the ground up, not from ‘vast amounts of cash’ on down. There is no ‘moving into profit mode later’ for healthy publications,” he wrote. “So 29th Street is making top-notch tools that allow publishers of ANY size to find their fit — and publishers don’t have to burn money that isn’t theirs making delivery vehicles like these.”
That includes publishers even smaller than The Awl — as with 29th Street’s first app, V as in Victor, an iPad magazine focused on the specific subject of Latino athletic success. It comes with two free “issues” and a week’s free trial, then updates weekly for a $3 monthly subscription.
The magazine apps from 29th Street are relatively stripped down, focusing mostly on text and the reading experience: Swipe up or down to read, left or right to jump between stories. Opening the app gives users three options: subscribe, read, or browsing through the library. “We wanted to have a place to remind people that the point is not to just read it, enjoy the free issue, and leave it in the newsstand forever,” he said. “The point is to get people to subscribe.” Weekend Companion issues are relatively short, around five stories each, with issues priced at $1.99 each or $4 a month.
For some readers, the motivation to subscribe is affinity for a particular blog of writer — but for even the biggest fans, the apps’ performance will be key. “We want these issues to download fast, launch the app, and the content appears,” Jacobs said. “Performance is really important to us. We felt other apps weren’t taking care of the user by making them wait so long.” For blogs and other small publishers, having a reading app will be an extension of the relationship they have readers. Jacobs said they want to help with that while trying to be “as thin a middle man as possible.”
“Our goal when we come to work in the morning is: How do we get more subscribers to the app? That’s good for us and good for publishers,” he said.