Once Magazine, which launched a year ago at Visa pour l'Image, promised to offer a new revenue stream for photographers by publishing their work on the iPad. Last month, however, Once closed its doors. The magazine's editor, John Knight, tells BJP what went wrong
One year ago, John Knight and Jackson Solway, respectively the executive editor and CEO of a new company called Once, were in Perpignan for the Visa pour l'Image photojournalism festival. Their goal was to meet with photographers and agencies to pitch a new idea: an iPad-only magazine dedicated to showcasing the best of photojournalism and documentary photography.
One year later, Once is nowhere to be found in Perpignan. In August, after several months of struggling sales, the San Francisco-based company closed its doors. In an interview with BJP, Knight recounts what went wrong. "First and foremost, it was really because we weren't able to raise more money," he says. When Once Magazine launched, the plan was to charge readers £1.99 for an issue, which featured the work of three photographers, or offer each issue for £1.49 as part of a rolling subscription, with half of the proceeds going back to the photographers themselves.
At its peak, Once had 2000 monthly subscriptions and sold 10 to 30 single issues a day.
"We soon realised we couldn't last for the amount of time we needed to make subscriptions pay as much as we needed them to," says Knight. "And maybe we should have charged more for the subscriptions." This situation quickly became unsustainable, he adds. "It became more and more 'the elephant in the room'. We were unable to pay ourselves, and unable to spend the money we needed to, and really wanted to, on technology." Once Magazine relied on Woodwing, a digital publishing software that integrates with Adobe InDesign to transform traditional pages into a fully fledged iPad application. But, Woodwing's offering proved to be too pricey, with Once looking to deploy, in its final months, to another platform such as Mag+. But, even then, the magazine struggled to find the resources to make the switch. "We really were unable to meet the tech demands," says Knight. "For example, we were exploring the Mag+ option but couldn't even spend the time to get the app optimised for the Retina Display with the original software we were using, even though it was a possibility. So, in addition to not being able to pay ourselves, it was becoming difficult to work in a full-time capacity without pay."
Once also wanted to strike partnerships with traditional media outlets, such as USA Today, to cross-publish its contributors' work. That also failed to happen, says Knight. "It felt like it would take at least a year for us to reach a sustainable financial position. It was a never-ending battle."
As a result, Once started losing staff. In early 2012, Solway jumped ship, publishing on his blog a note alluding to the fact that the magazine failed to attract subscribers.
"Of all the editors who were working on Once, people were starting to drift a bit," say Knight. "Some people were finding other projects, some people went back to university. So there was this kind of feeling, ‘Where is it going?'"
In June, Once tried to restructure its operations by publishing only one photography project per issue instead of three. "We thought that publishing single stories for a time would give us enough time to work on the structure of the company, and on the technology part, but it was just an endless battle," says Knight.
That battle came to an end in August, when the editors realised they had no choice but to call it quits. "We always felt the magazine was really solid," Knight tells BJP. "We were always proud of it. But in the end it was kind of our own undoing because we cared so much about the editorial aspects."
Knight believes Once could have been profitable if it had had the resources to weather the storm for a couple of years. "You need to give it the time and resources. You need to be able to push it to the audience – part of this means marketing the app, but another important part is to be on other platforms. The way the magazine was presented worked really well on the iPad, but it limits your audience. Don't get me wrong, I think the iPad can be good, but as far as making money on it, it's a bit limiting. And, as far as journalism goes, if you're reporting an issue that only people with a $500-device can read, you can't help feeling you aren't doing it justice."
Once looked at the possibility of releasing single issues of the magazine using Amazon's Kindle store but, again, it was unable to put the resources behind it in time – and even if it had, Knight isn't sure it would have worked. "I think the subscription aspect of Once propelled people to buy into it. When you do a one-off book, it might be a harder sell. Maybe it's more exciting to pay for something you get every month."
Now, as Knight moves from San Francisco to New York to take on new editorial responsibilities, he remains a big proponent of the iPad, especially for photography. "It just looks beautiful on this screen." But if he was asked to work on another iPad-only project, he would probably decline. "I'd wonder where the money would come from and how they'd go about reaching the audience," he tells BJP. "I think you have to be realistic with your expectations."
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