All those people staring at their tablets on airplanes, the buttons to their Economist app conspicuously displayed—are they more likely to spend the flight actually reading the Economist, or slingshotting irate avians into green pig heads?
Or maybe they’re reading about the latest coup in Africa, or checking out the hot new sex tip from Cosmopolitan, or the knee-slappingest pet jokes compiled by Reader's Digest; or playing one of those tablet pianos like in the iPad mini commercials? The numbers are in from the Alliance for Audited Media, the Nielsen-esque giant that crunches numbers for the publishing industry, but they raise more questions than they answer.
At first blush, things don’t look good for tablet publications: Digital editions of magazines account for just 3.3 percent of overall magazine circulation. But among them, there is one outstanding success story. A single magazine accounts for almost one-third of all digital subscriptions. Is it Time? Nope. National Geographic? Guess again. The post-print Newsweek, whose horizon is now entirely digital?
No, silly, it’s Game Informer.
Game Informer? If you’ve never heard of, much less read, Game Informer, don’t feel bad. This niche publication started 22 years ago this month as a free, six-page newsletter handed out at FuncoLand, a predecessor to GameStop that was arguably the first games retailer. The first issue, released in an era when video games were still purchased by mail order, featured Sonic the Hedgehog on the cover, which blared, “FUNCO: The Best Way to Increase Your Video Games Library!” Game Informer blossomed remarkably quickly into a full-fledged magazine with a national reach. Even though my family, for instance, lived in Texas—nowhere near the Minnesota-prairie home base of FuncoLand and Game Informer—my big brother John was a subscriber starting with the September/October 1993 edition: the “Second Anniversary Issue!” fronted by an orange-and-black dragon cameo and the cover line “Mortal Kombat Heats Up Your Home System.”
Game Informer was the hands-down best video game magazine of the ’90s, when the 16-bit console wars between the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo had a parallel in the equally glorious magazine wars fought among Game Informer, EGM, Nintendo Power, GamePro, and more—wars in which everyone won. But something changed in the year 2000. That’s the year GameStop bought FuncoLand, and, as the retail video game shopping experience transformed from joy that a game store even existed into the agony of upselling, GameStop’s presence started to be felt in the pages of its tie-in publication. Today, the magazine still has some of the writers who made it what it is, like Andy Reiner, the standard-bearer of gamers’ favorite urban legend (which might actually be true). But its reviews have gone soft—whereas the staff awarded zero perfect 10s in the ’90s, it’s handed out 23 so far this millennium—and the magazine has devoted ever more resources to breathless previews of products coming soon to a GameStop near you.
It’s true that Game Informer has editorial independence from its corporate owner, but so does Fox News. The sad truth is, Game Informer has become too much of an instrument in the hype machine that’s made most game journalism so hard to take seriously.
But then how is Game Informer, a shell of its former self, using tablets like a paddle to spank the competition? How does it have an online subscription base of almost 3 million, about as big, as Ad Age puts it, as “the digital circulations of the next 24 magazines combined”?
The explanation goes back to GameStop’s aforementioned upselling. If you pay the $15 to sign up for the “Pro” version of GameStop’s rewards program—as the clerks are constantly pressuring you to do—you don’t just get discounts off used games; you also get a subscription to Game Informer. So all those copies of the magazine surrounding the register aren’t there to be bought; they’re actually an advertisement for the rewards program. Why pay $6 for me when you can get 12 of me for free?
Really, it’s an evolution of the AARP/Costco magazine model. GameStop has made Game Informer a door prize at its stores, just as AARP the Magazine and AARP Bulletin are door prizes for surviving. AARP the Magazine has exploited this members-get-subscriptions concept to parlay a ho-hum publication into the largest-circulation magazine in the United States, with 21 million readers. No. 2 on the Alliance for Audited Media’s list? AARP Bulletin. And at the top of the circulation list for unpaid magazines? Costco Connection, with 8.6 million readers, dwarfing WebMD Magazine’s 1.4 million circulation. The model has certainly worked for Game Informer. As Ad Age reports, Game Informer’s digital circulation was 4,844 when GameStop tied magazine subscriptions to its rewards program in 2010. Now it’s almost 3 million.
Prince pulled a similar coup in 2004 when he pushed Musicology up the charts by including a copy of the album in the ticket price of his concerts that year, and handing a disc to everyone in the audience. This stunt prompted Billboard to change how it measures album sales, and as magazines move from paper-and-staples to diodes-and-glass, the people whose job it is to figure out circulation face similar accounting vexations. A look at the AAM’s raw numbers reveals how confusing this brave new world can be. Take Time, which gives subscribers an “all access pass” to its tablet edition as well as mailed print copies. If print subscribers are also digital subscribers, how is it that Time is No. 11 on the overall circulation list, at 3,301,056, but doesn’t crack the top 25 in digital subscriptions? Conversely, how is it that Wired, which like Time gives its print subscribers a subscription to its tablet edition, No. 12 on the digital-subscriber list but nowhere near the top 25 in overall circulation? For that matter, how is it that Game Informer has a total circulation of 7.8 million but only 3 million digital subscribers?
I posed these seeming contradictions to the AAM's Susan Kantor, who tells me that under AAM rules, magazines that bundle print and digital subscriptions into a package deal must count these dual subscribers toward one column or another, to avoid double counting. Put another way, accounting methods haven’t caught up to the times—they no longer reflect how publications experiment with subscription schemes, or how readers experience magazines, or how advertisers might want to use all that information.
Game Informer is a rare bird in that it doesn’t offer an all-access pass. People who pay to enroll in the GameStop rewards program (including, full disclosure, myself), must choose between a print or digital subscription to the magazine, so no asterisks are needed next to any of Game Informer's AAM numbers: 4.9 million print subscribers, 2.9 million digital subscribers, 7.8 million total circulation. But theoretically, the magazine could combine its print and digital subscriptions tomorrow, move all its numbers into one column, and claim even further dominance of the digital market, with 7.8 million tablet subscribers and just a couple thousand print copies in circulation—an absurd contradiction of reality.
As for me, I choose the print edition. I like holding the paper in my hands, and when it comes to non-newsy topics like video games, there’s something nice about a publication that won’t refresh if you come back to it a day—or an hour—later, making you feel forever behind. Besides, at least for this gamer, tablets aren't for reading about games. They're for playing them.