Huffington makes her tablet magazine free, after five issues

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Arianna Huffington, and her new tablet magazine. ()
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When The Huffington Post launched its weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, a month and a half ago, executive editor Tim O'Brien explained why they had decided to make it a paid product at 99 cents an issue, $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year.

"We feel it's a premium product and it deserves to carry a price with it in order to access all the value we're giving people," he told a small group of reporters the week it launched in June.

But Arianna Huffington and her lieutenants may have overestimated readers' willingness to pay for content: The magazine, O'Brien announced during a companywide meeting Wednesday afternoon, has switched to an unpaid model. It's now listed as a free download in the iTunes store. In all, five issues were published before the change was made, though it's also worth noting that Huffington was originally conceived as a free offering when it was in development this past winter.

At yesterday's meeting, which was described generally as a company meet-and-greet/progress report, Huffington asked O'Brien to talk about the status of the magazine, and he told the several hundred employees gathered in a sixth-floor auditorium at AOL's Broadway headquarters that there had been a total of roughly 115,000 downloads of the app, according to people who were in attendance. Since the app always came with a complimentary free month, it was not clear how much revenue those downloads generated.

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"In the end, we felt that asking people to pay for the magazine was inconsistent with The Huffington Post itself, which has never charged for content," Rhoades Alderson, a HuffPost spokesman, told Capital when we asked about the move. "We're thrilled with the way the magazine has been received."

Huffington is a big play by current inudstry standards, employing a full-time staff of roughly two dozen, and emphasizing long-form journalism and other magaziney fare; the design is sleek and expensive looking, and it impressed reporters who attended a splashy rooftop soiree at the Gramercy Park Hotel on June 14 to celebrate the launch.

"It's basically the difference between a one-night stand and a long getaway when you want to get to know someone really intimately," Huffington told the crowd that night.

But the tablet-only market has proven to be a tough sell, and others who have plunged into this space have also dialed back their ambitions. Earlier this week, News Corp's The Daily, which is a much larger and more costly operation than Huffington, announced that it was reducing its 170-person staff by about a third, simplifying its design, and diminishing the amount of original content in some sections.

For revenue, Huffington will now rely solely on advertising. Its launch sponsor was Toyota, and its goal from the outset has been to create a "display-ad-rich environment," as O'Brien put it at the time of the launch, for blue-chip brands that wouldn't necessarily mesh with the deluge of breaking news items, blog posts and splash headlines that make up the main Huffington Post website.

Alderson said that anyone who had purchased a Huffington subscription would be fully reimbursed.