The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis may have shut down production of Australian TV shows and movies, but the local debut of the ‘Spotify of magazines’ may be perfectly timed to fill a gap for isolated Australians craving both local and global stories.

Swedish company Readly – which started in 2013 and previously expanded to eight other countries – was already negotiating for its launch in the “pretty stable” Australian market long before the global pandemic forced the population to go to ground, CEO Maria Hedengren told Information Age.

“Australians really like to read magazines and have quite a high average spend per capita,” she explained, citing the ongoing popularity of magazine readership as a way of delivering targeted, carefully curated content to enthusiastic readers.

Roy Morgan figures, which track 100 prominent Australian magazine titles, found readership had stayed stable in the year to December 2019 – with around 39m pairs of eyeballs across the spectrum.

Digital readership, which includes readers viewing content by web or app, increased by 12 per cent during the same time.

“Australia has been on the radar for quite a while,” Hedengren said, “and going into a new country is something we can do very quickly: we don’t need a massive ramp-up, but what we do need is to have some really good local content.”

Readly subscribers pay a flat $14.99 monthly fee for access to the company’s global database of titles, which includes over 5,000 magazine titles in 16 languages covering a broad spectrum of interests.

Partnerships with Australian magazine giants Bauer Media, Future Publishing and subsidiary nextmedia have given Readly access to several dozen Australian titles, with more to come as Readly continues to expand its stable of around 800 publishers.

Reading in a time of lockdown

The universal appeal of magazines – particularly English-language titles that are easily portable into new markets – meant that Readly has avoided the rocky relationships with content producers that have dogged unlimited-access services in industries like music and movies.

Whereas music and movie licensors may impose geographic restrictions to preserve existing license agreements, Hedengren said Readly publishers see every new market as an opportunity to expand readership without cannibalising their existing customer base.

Readly’s steady growth has put it in competition with content behemoth Apple, whose Apple News+ service similarly offers an unlimited-access pass to around 300 magazines and was launched in Australia in September for a similar price of $14.99 per month.

Hedegren, however, is nonplussed – citing Readly’s “broader and deeper content portfolio” and multilingual titles, as well as the relatively low replacement of traditional magazine readership with digital alternatives.

“It’s always very humbling to be up against someone like Apple, but in all honesty, it is good for the industry in general,” she said.

“It’s not all bad that there are multiple actors in the market pushing their services – we can clearly see that when Apple is active in this space, it has a positive effect on consumption behaviour.”

With the announcement that local content-production obligations will be suspended due to the coronavirus, easily accessible digital magazines could become a favoured alternative for the many Australians eager to continue accessing local-interest stories.

News, lifestyle and other educational titles have already been proving popular in coronavirus lockdown, with analysis of Readly statistics showing that European readership habits had changed significantly with the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic.

Swedish readers, for example, were increasing their readership of titles related to craft and DIY, business and finance, and health and mindfulness – reflecting recent surveys showing that Australians are investing in lifestyle, learning and self-care during the lockdown.

British readers were splurging on mindfulness and health titles, as well as increasing their consumption of crosswords and puzzles by 28 per cent in the last few weeks.

Italian readers, by contrast, had increased their readership of science, technology, gossip and food publications – while German and Austrian readers had almost doubled their consumption of history, gardening, luxury, and news titles.