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August 17 2012

17:37

Twitter’s API changes will have a real impact on news developers

The Twitter birdTwitter’s newly fortified mission to “deliver a consistent Twitter experience,” which is FREAKING OUT the tech world right now, will also force some news organizations to re-examine their code.

In a blog post, Michael Sippey, Twitter’s head of consumer products, said the company will crack down on apps that “reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience.” Think TweetBot, EchoFon, etc. While there’s no Seattle Times-branded Twitter client, changes in the API terms will have a subtler impact on Twitter-powered news apps.

Two of the most important changes: Tweets displayed to users must follow the company’s Display Guidelines, which require “Reply, Retweet, and Favorite action icons must always be visible.” And “No other social or 3rd party actions may be attached to a Tweet.” (Let’s hope Twitter’s next move isn’t to require us to capitalize “tweet.”)

That means news apps like The Washington Post’s @MentionMachine, which tracks presidential candidates on Twitter, will have to be reworked on the front end, where tweets are presented to readers, to match a style similar to Twitter’s own tweet embeds.

“Everything that we do with partners in social and tech is just an evolving scenario,” said Cory Haik, who manages digital projects at the Post. “Bringing that attitude forward is just helpful anyway, because, you know, it’s all subject to change.”

It’s a reminder that anyone who builds a product on a third-party platform, especially a free one, risks losing everything, anytime, on a moment’s notice. Just this morning I received a pitch from a startup called EmbedTree, which “aggregates rich media from Twitter and embeds this content within our site.” Looks cool, good idea, but Twitter’s new terms may kill it dead: One of the new rules is that pictures shared on Twitter must be displayed alongside the original tweet.

Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, worries that “I can’t just display a tweet as a link and blockquote when I want to quote it.” I think he’s wrong, though, because Twitter can’t revoke a person’s writing privileges — God, not yet — for misuse of their content, since embedding a tweet doesn’t require an API key.

The rules also forbid intermingling tweets with non-Twitter content, “e.g. comments, updates from other networks.” That immediately raised concerns that Storify — a favorite tool of journalists — would bite the dust.

Twitter, mess with @storify and we are going to have problems.

— Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) August 16, 2012

Twitter’s Ryan Sarver said Storify would be safe. (“They are what we *want* in the ecosystem,” he tweeted.)

Even if your organization doesn’t build apps, there may be changes to services journalists use. On Twitter, Dan Cohen told me: “We often find stories for Digital Humanities Now (@dhnow) using some Twitter processing services (like News.me, TweetedTimes)…we’re trying to figure out how those services will be affected, esp. since Flipboard seems to be on the ‘Dead to Twitter’ list.”

For example, the resurrected Digg.com displays tweets on its home page underneath popular stories. The reply/retweet/favorite buttons do appear when you hover over the tweet, but not until then. Does that break with the display guidelines? Bananastand Inc., the Betaworks company that now runs the site, did not want to comment for this story.

Our own Fuego, which monitors a universe of about 7,000 journalists to determine what they’re talking about in real time, will probably have to change. We display the screen name, avatar, and text of the first tweet associated with a popular link. Under Twitter’s rules, we’ll have to comply with Twitter’s Display Guidelines or risk losing our privileges.

The Nieman Lab’s iPhone app, like those of a lot of other outlets, displays a simple view of our Twitter feed. We think that’s okay, because it’s powered by RSS and not the API, but we’ll see.

It seems like a long time ago that journalists were debating the merits of Twitter. Now, Twitter is so integral to our work that it feels like a utility — electricity, the phone, Gchat — and less like what it is: a for-profit company trying to protect its business interests. Everything is subject to change. Worth remembering when you’re deciding where to invest your development efforts.

December 08 2011

19:45

New Read It Later data: What does engagement look like in a time-shifted world?

This morning, Coco Krumme and Mark Armstrong — newly of Read It Later and always of @Longreads — released a study of Read It Later data examining stories that were saved by Read It Later’s 4 million-and-counting users over a six-month period (from May 1 to October 31, 2011). Together, David Carr put it, the data are part of a broader group of statistics that are emerging in the digital space to lend insight into “what kind of writing and writers are the stickiest.” (More bluntly: “What Writers are Worth Saving?“)

While the findings about overall article saves are pretty fascinating — go, Denton and Co.! — what I’m most interested in are the sample’s return rates, the stats that measure actual engagement rather than one-off story saves. Because, if my own use of Read It Later and Instapaper are any indication, a click on a Read Later button is, more than anything, an act of desperate, blind hope. Why, yes, Foreign Policy, I would love to learn about the evolution of humanitarian intervention! And, certainly, Center for Public Integrity, I’d be really excited to read about the judge who’s been a thorn in the side of Wall Street’s top regulator! I am totally interested, and sincerely fascinated, and brimming with curiosity!

But I am less brimming with time. So, for me, rather than acting like a bookmark for later-on leafing — a straight-up, time-shifted reading experience — a click on a Read Later button is actually, often, a kind of anti-engagement. It provides just enough of a rush of endorphins to give me a little jolt of accomplishment, sans the need for the accomplishment itself. But, then, that click will also, very likely, be the last interaction I will have with these worthy stories of NGOs and jurisprudence.

(“Saving…saved!…gone!”)

It’s when I’m actually looking at my Instapaper or Read It Later queue that things get real. That’s when the Aspirational Read and the Actual Read duke it out for my attention. Do I really want to read about how GOP senators’ positions on Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are aligned with that of the industry? Or would I — alone with my thoughts and my iPhone — really kind of prefer to read something from The Awl?

This is what makes the Read It Later dataset so interesting. There’s precious little overlap between the most-saved authors and the authors with the highest return rates. “Engagement” isn’t really “engagement”; it’s not a static thing. What we think we want in a given moment — life-improvement advice, tech news — may well be quite different from what we want once we’re removed from that moment. (Which is to say: Interest, like everything else, is subject to time.)

What does endure, though, the Read It Later info suggests, is the human connection at the heart of the best journalism. While so much of the most-saved stuff has a unifying theme — life-improvement and gadgets, with Boing Boing’s delights thrown in for good measure — it’s telling, I think, that the returned-to content can’t be so easily categorized. It runs the gamut, from sports to tech, from pop culture to entertainment. What it does have in common, though, is good writing. I don’t read all the folks on the list, but I read a lot of them — and I suspect that what keeps people coming back to them. When I’m looking at my queue and I see Maureen O’Connor’s byline, I’ll probably click — not because I necessarily care about the topic of her post, but because, through her mix of smarts and humor, she’ll make me care. The Read It Later suggests a great thing for writers: Stickiness seems actually to be a function of quality.

Or, as David Carr might put it: The ones worth saving are the ones being saved.

July 28 2011

16:30

Why The Atlantic joined up with Pulse — and what the app’s usage stats can tell data-hungry publishers

Let’s face some facts: Media companies aren’t entirely sure what to do with the new crop of news reading apps that are springing up at the moment. Technology like Flipboard, Zite, or Pulse could either be a thief, a new revenue stream, or an inexpensive test bed for finding new ways to get your content in front of people. For the moment, these deals, if they are drawn up between a publisher and an app maker, typically get thrown into the category of “partnerships,” like the kind of reading app Pulse has been brokering with media companies like CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Time, and MSNBC.

Just last week Pulse struck a new partnership agreement, adding The Atlantic, The Atlantic Wire, and The National Journal to its list of featured content providers. So far, the deals between Pulse and news organizations haven’t been monetary; if anything, they’re more exploratory in nature, determining whether a third party can deliver substantial traffic to news sites (and eyes to their ads). But it can also be instructive on how audiences’ appetites for reading has changed, and give us an idea why places like The Atlantic want in with Pulse.

M. Scott Havens, vice president of digital strategy and operations for The Atlantic, told me the new wave of display apps are offering experiments in how the reading experience has changed, which is of no small interest to publishers. “Hopefully people will find us, discover us on Pulse, and might actually become a subscriber to our brands,” Havens said. The Atlantic can reach new audiences while also studying how users read, Havens said.

Essentially it’s a win-win for the moment: “Since we don’t spend money on advertising and let the editorial be our branding arm, we’d like to get out to these applications where other readers are, who aren’t familiar with our brand,” he said.

This all works perfectly for Pulse, says Akshay Kothari, the company’s CEO, because their broad goal at the moment is gathering more content to spotlight within the app and developing fruitful relationships with publishers. One of the critical bits of information Pulse holds is data on usage patterns for readers within the app, both on the iPad and iPhone.

Though Kothari would not offer up specific data, he told me one clear trend is the difference in the reading patterns on the iPhone vs. the iPad. On any given week, Pulse users on smartphones open the app twice as often as people on the tablet version. But all told, tablet users spend more time on Pulse, and their sessions are twice as long as those of iPhone users. What’s also interesting is that in some cases one platform feeds into another: “If you look at usage patterns, [users] will come in small bursts to look at news, and if they like it — long-form articles or something from The Economist — they’ll save them and read them on other devices,” he said.

So in a typical day a Pulse reader may drop in more than 3 times to check the news, but only spend 5-10 minutes scanning, Kothari said. From what they’re seeing, a good chunk of Pulse’s audience falls somewhere into this category of heavy-ish users who subscribe to multiple sources, as opposed to those who scan stories and headlines on Pulse with less frequency.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Pulse tracks with patterns we’ve been seeing emerge in the ways people read on new devices. In terms of the iPad, Pulse seems to mirror similar evidence we’ve seen suggesting that people look for a comfy spot to do serious reading on their tablets. “The consumption pattern on the tablet is slightly different, spending longer time,” Kothari said. “The use-case is kind of like sitting in home, maybe lounging with the iPad and consuming lots of time and news stories.”

Another trend they saw was an increase in delayed reading. Not long after launching, it became clear readers were using Pulse to dip into and out of the day’s news and emailing stories to themselves. “We realized that a good majority of people want something to save (stories) and go back to it later, simple functionality to save from Pulse and synch with other devices,” he said. (They’ve since added Instapaper and Read It Later buttons.)

Pulse uses all this information in refining its product, adding features when necessary and responding to feedback from users. But it’s clear that this is also intel that could be of interest to news organizations trying to reconcile their digital media plans with those of third-party app companies. As part of the partnership, news organizations will get their hands on data from Pulse on how many users subscribe to their content, as well as social sharing stats and click-through rates, Kothari said.

Pulse can be an app for news discovery as much as presentation, meaning it can be a gateway for introducing people to news sources they would otherwise not know. Which is one of the reasons they’re eager to buddy-up with media companies like The Atlantic, Kothari said. One of the things they learned early was that there’s no predicting what readers will find interesting. Of all the pre-loaded news sources they had at launch, which included RSS feeds from mainstream organizations, one that was apparently most interesting to readers was from Cool Hunting, the design and culture blog. One of Pulse’s goals going forward, Kothari said, is to create an opportunity for a “Cool Hunting moment” for more publishers.

“We’re very, very excited to work on this,” he said. “The team assembled are all great developers and designers, but also people who want to see great journalism survive.”

July 22 2011

05:21

April 29 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ forced hand, a Patch recruiting push, and two sets of news maxims

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Leaking gets competitive: WikiLeaks made its first major document release in five months — during which time its founder, Julian Assange, was arrested, released on bail, and put under house arrest — this week, publishing 764 files regarding the Guantánamo Bay prison along with 10 media partners. (As always, The Nation’s Greg Mitchell’s WikiLeaks über-blogging is the place to go for every detail you could possibly need to know.)

That’s more media partners than WikiLeaks has worked with previously, and it includes several first-timers, such as the Washington Post and McClatchy. As the Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares noted, the list of partners doesn’t include the New York Times and the Guardian, the two English-language newspapers who worked with WikiLeaks in its first media collaboration last summer. Despite being shut out, those two organizations were still able to force WikiLeaks’ hand in publishing the leak, as the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone explained.

The Times got their hands on the documents independently, then passed them on to the Guardian and NPR. This meant that, unlike the news orgs that got the info from WikiLeaks, they were operating without an embargo. As they prepared to publish last Sunday, WikiLeaks lifted its embargo early for its own partners (though the first to publish was actually the Telegraph, a WikiLeaks partner).

The New York Times’ Brian Stelter and Noam Cohen said the episode was evidence that WikiLeaks “has become such a large player in journalism that some of its secrets are no longer its own to control.” But, as they reported, WikiLeaks itself didn’t seem particularly perturbed about it.

Patch’s reaches for more bloggers: AOL seems to be undergoing a different overhaul every week since it bought the Huffington Post earlier this year, and this week the changes are at its hyperlocal initiative Patch, which is hoping to add 8,000 community bloggers to its sites over the next week or two in what its editor-in-chief called a “full-on course correction.”

While talking to paidContent, AOL’s folks played down the degree of change it’s implementing, explaining that these new bloggers (who will be recruited from, among other sources, the sites’ frequent commenters) aren’t disrupting the basic Patch model of one full-time editor per site. In fact, they’ll be unpaid, something that’s been a bit of a headache for AOL and HuffPo lately.

Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson liked the plan, saying volunteer bloggers can become “extremely effective word-of-mouth marketers” and “excellent pageview machines” with, of course, “manageable” salaries. Others from MediaBistro and Wired were a little more skeptical of the no-pay factor. Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau took issue with a more systemic aspect of the new blogs, which will exist both on the writer’s own site and on Patch. Splitting up the conversation with that arrangement won’t be helpful for the individual blogs or for the local blogosphere as a whole, he said: “I see something developing that leads to less population in the local blogosphere and a walled-off system that operates on Patch. At worst, it will lead to parallel and fracture[d] conversations online, which is death when we’re talking about hyperlocal.”

Two new media manifestos: Two New York j-profs — and two of the more prominent future-of-news pundits online these days — both published manifestos of sorts this week, and both are worth a read. Jay Rosen summed up what he’s learned about journalism in 25 years of teaching and thinking about it at NYU, and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis gave a few dozen bullet points outlining his philosophy of news economics.

Rosen’s post touched on several of the themes that have colored his blog and Twitter feed over the past few years, including the value of increasing participation, the failure of “objectivity,” and the need for usefulness and context in news. But while the ideas weren’t exactly new, the conversation they generated was stimulating. The comments chase down some interesting tangents, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram expanded on Rosen’s point about participation, arguing that even if the number of users who want to participate is relatively low, opening up the process can still be immensely important in improving journalism. Rosen also inspired TBD’s Steve Buttry to write his own “what I know about the news business” post.

Like Rosen’s post, Jarvis’ wouldn’t break a whole lot of ground for those already familiar with his ideas, but it summed them up in a helpfully pithy format. He focused heavily on providing real value (“The only thing that matters to the market is value”), the importance of engagement, and finding efficiencies in infrastructure and collaboration. His post contains plenty of pessimism about the current newspaper business model, and Mathew Ingram and FishbowlNY’s Chris O’Shea defended him against the idea that he’s just a doomsayer.

Times paywall bits: The New York Times spent a reported $25 million to develop its paid-content system, and it will be spending another $13 million on the plan this year, mostly for promotion. Women’s Wear Daily detailed those promotional efforts, which include posters around New York as well as TV spots. PaidContent’s Robert Andrews compared the Times’ pay plan to that of the other Times (the one in London, owned by Rupert Murdoch), noting that the New York Times’ plan should allow them to draw more revenue while maintaining their significant online influence, something the Times of London hasn’t done at all (though it’s largely by choice).

Meanwhile, Terry Heaton found another (perhaps more convoluted) way around the Times’ system, tweeting links to Times stories that he can’t access. And elsewhere at the Times, the Lab’s Megan Garber explored the Times’ R&D Lab’s efforts to map the way Times stories are shared online.

And elsewhere in paywalls, the CEO of the McClatchy newspaper chain has reversed his anti-paywall stance and said this week the company is planning paywalls for some of its larger papers, and Business Insider introduced us to another online paid-content company, Tiny Pass.

Apps, news, and pay: In his outgoing post on Poynter’s Mobile Media blog, Damon Kiesow had a familiar critique for news organizations’ forays into mobile media — they’re too much like their print counterparts to be truly called innovative. But he did add a reason for optimism, pointing to the New York Times’ News.me and the Washington Post’s Trove: “Neither is a finished product or a perfect one. But both were created by newspaper companies that put resources into research and development.”

Media analyst Ken Doctor said local news needs to start moving toward mobile media to reach full effectiveness, laying out the model of an aggregated local news app pulling various types of media. For maximum engagement, that app had better include audio, according to some NPR statistics reported by the Lab’s Andrew Phelps.

There may a bigger place for paid apps than we’ve thought: Instapaper’s Marco Arment twice pulled the free version of the app for about a month and found that sales actually increased. He made the case against free apps, saying they bring low conversion rates, little revenue, and unnecessary image problems. Meanwhile, makers of one free app, Zite, said they’re releasing a new version to deal with complaints they’ve been getting from publishers about copyright issues.

Reading roundup: No big stories this week, but tons of little things to keep up on. Here’s a bit of the basics:

— On social media: Facebook launched a “Send” plugin among a few dozen websites (including a couple of news sites) that allows private content-sharing. The Next Web’s Lauren Fisher argued that journalists should spend more time using Facebook, and Canadian j-prof Alfred Hermida wrote about a study he helped conduct about social media and news consumption.

— The Guardian shut down a local-news project it launched last year, saying the local blogs were “not sustainable.” PaidContent’s Robert Andrews said that while the blogs were useful, there are few examples of sustainable local-news efforts, and Rachel McAthy of Journalism.co.uk rounded up some opinions to try to find the value in the Guardian’s experiment.

— The news filtering program Storify launched in public beta this week, prompting a New York Times profile and pieces by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran on the journalistic value of curation.

— Thanks to its most recent content-farm-oriented algorithm tweak, Google’s traffic to all Demand Media sites is down 40%, which caused Demand stock to slide this week. Google, meanwhile, added some more automatic personalization features to Google News.

— The Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote a great piece expounding on the journalistic utility of the humble (well, kind of humble) smartphone.

— And for your deep-thinking weekend-reading piece, Harvard researcher Ethan Zuckerman’s thoughtful take on overcoming polarization by understanding each other’s values, rather than just facts.

January 10 2011

16:30

The year ahead in narrative: Little piggies, extraterrestrial life, and how we’ll tell each other stories in 2011

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we asked a bunch of smart people for their predictions of what 2011 would bring for the evolving world of journalism. But because of an editing error, we forgot to post one set of predictions.

Here’s Andrea Pitzer, editor of our terrific sister site Nieman Storyboard, on what 2011 will bring for narrative and storytelling.

In the coming year, long-form text/print narratives will continue at a handful of U.S. newspapers, and we’ll still see stories from talented writers who will manage to cobble a career (sometimes a stellar one) out of their teaching and books or magazine articles. Aspiring storytellers will get less personal coaching, even as a broader range of people will be able to access information on craft via YouTube and writers’ networks.

Digital stories will continue to nibble away at print’s dominance of fabulous narrative—look for more things like Jay Caspian Kang’s “The High Is Always the Pain, and the Pain Is Always the High,” or Jake Bogoch’s “School of Fight” to introduce you to talented writers you’ve never heard of. A few places, like Slate, Frontline, and nonprofit journalism orgs, will continue their savvy commitment to carving out digital space for storytelling with news value that takes time or space to unfold.

These are all extensions of existing trends. So what will be new in 2011? I predict that the shift to visual narrative will pick up the pace a little, with at least one new storyteller producing surprising short-form nonfiction narrative video that will grab and hold an audience in the millions about an important issue. (By this, I mean a constructed story, not the situational video records like the death of Neda Soltan or the innovative testimonials of the “It Gets Better” campaign.)

And we’ll see social media reflected more and more in our story constructs and in the stories themselves. Curation tools are beginning to make it possible to tell stories in new forms that can make use of literary techniques — I’m still thinking about the way that Mandy Jenkins of TBD managed to recreate the moment-by-moment suspense and confusion in the wake of a death outside a D.C. nightclub. These kinds of tools for gathering and presenting social media will make it possible for new epistolary models like Slate’s mock presidential Facebook feed or collaborative Twitter efforts to serve as inspiration for nonfiction narratives.

Still, this new storytelling will likely be pretty messy through 2011. Telling a story depends on building a compelling arc, but it also relies on an audience finding a way to engage with the narrative. Quality work may fail to connect to audiences; other new-style narratives that have innovative, exciting aspects may not yet work as a whole.

I also believe that the future is often a surprise, and so it’s possible that Geico commercials, the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or something that we can’t even imagine right now might play an important role in how we’ll tell stories in the future. But I wouldn’t give up on Instapaper and long-form stories just yet.

October 29 2010

16:00

Center for Public Integrity’s HTML5 product aims to make long-form journalism readable on any device

Is it possible to enjoy long-form investigative journalism in a digital age without a fancy tablet? A 5,000-word piece can be tough to get through on an ad-supported website. And while the experience on iPad apps is promising, an app is a costly investment — or investments, in a world with multiple incompatible platforms — for a news organization to make.

The nonprofit news organization Center for Public Integrity is announcing an alternative today at the annual Online News Association conference. The Center wants to make reading its work more enjoyable for the user, and a smarter investment for an organization rethinking its online and mobile strategies. The Center has a new HTML5 product that gives users an app-like experience in a web browser. The project is part of a new digital initiative at the Center, funded by $1.5 million in grants from the Knight Foundation.

“We think we’ve created a better way to consume investigative reporting,” John Solomon, the chief digital officer told me, and at a much lower cost than developing apps for different devices.

Solomon gave me a demo yesterday, and I have to say, I was impressed. You can flip through stories from right to left the way you can on an iPad or an iPhone. Text and images resize easily for whatever screen you’re on, whether phone or desktop. It loads fast and smooth and has a clean, easy-on-the-eyes design. The impulse is to keep flipping through, from page to page or story to story.

The product was created with Treesaver, a platform specifically designed to make digital reading easier. It’s a project of, among others, the noted graphic designer Roger Black, whose famous three-color dictum — “the first color is white; the second is black; the third is red: the three together are the best” — is in evidence at Treesaver’s website (and the Lab’s). Treesaver is also working with Nomad, a startup that plans to put out paid electronic magazines.

I spoke with Filipe Fortes, the developer of Treesaver, about what his product means for long-form journalism. “The idea is to be reader friendly,” he said. As an example, he pulled up a website of a large regional newspaper and had me click on a story. (No need to name names — the experience would have been similar across most newspaper sites.) “It’s really kind of hostile to the reader, I feel,” he said, pointing out all the ads and social media boxes that distract from the text of the story. “I think that’s why people are loving the apps,” he said. “It’s just a chance to finally read again. There’s a lot of cool things happening on apps, but people on desktops are missing out.”

Those distractions Treesaver is trying to spare us from are also what monetize the content — but Fortes says he’s not against advertising, just how we display it with the content now. By lowering the bar to the content (as he puts it), by letting users easily flip along, fewer, cleaner ads can be monetized more effectively. He showed me a mockup of a Nomad magazine that runs full page ads between pages, similar to an iPad app. “If you can get people coming in from a blog or Google and you get them to read three stories [by flipping along],” he said, “Congratulations, you just tripled your revenue on that user.”

Fortes is presenting Treesaver at the ONA conference this afternoon. He says he’s eager to work with more news organizations, and is in talks with several.

October 06 2010

16:00

When people are willing to pay for “almost nothing”: The economic and emotional logic of web paywalls

Marco Arment is the developer behind Instapaper, the devilishly useful time-shifting tool for reading. Just as a DVR allows you to watch Mad Men when it’s convenient for you — say, at 6:45 p.m. Thursday instead of 10 p.m. Eastern on Sunday — Instapaper lets you read long-form prose when you’ve got the time and attention to devote to it. Come across a long interesting magazine piece in your daily web travels, but don’t have time to read it just then? Click Instapaper’s “Read Later” bookmarklet and it’ll be pulled into your iPhone (or Kindle or whatever) for offline reading when you’re on a plane or train. I love it.

But rather than just praise a terrific app, I want to point out a couple tweets of Marco’s that might tell us a little something about the paywalls we’ll see news organizations start erecting in greater quantities soon. Arment recently decided to start offering a paid model for Instapaper’s web service. He calls it an Instapaper Subscription, and it’s $3 for three months. What do you get for your $3? Arment is blunt:

Right now? Almost nothing, except knowing that you are supporting the Instapaper service’s operation and future feature development…

Some future features may be Subscriber-only, but please don’t buy a Subscription solely because you expect these exclusive features to be mind-blowing. They might be, depending on how easily your mind is blown, but I’d feel better if you bought the Subscription because you wanted to support Instapaper.

Now that’s a soft sell — pay me three bucks and I’ll give you roughly zero in return! But reaction to the move around the web has been overwhelmingly positive, as this tweet indicates:

I'm often surprised at how new things are received. Me: I now will accept money for almost nothing. Internet: Sounds great! Here you go!

He contrasts that with the often vociferous reaction some have to iPhone app developers who dare to charge a couple bucks for their work, rather than the expected price of $0:

Meanwhile.... iOS developers: Here is 6 months of work for $1.99. App Store reviewers: Lame, FAIL, should be $0.99, too expensive, useless!

An app is not a breaking story, and software is not journalism — but I think there’s some wisdom for news organizations here.

The economic value of your work is determined by the market, not wishes and hopes. Is it fair, in a cosmic sense, that people are willing to pay $3 for three months of “almost nothing” when it comes to Instapaper, but not pay $2 for an iPhone app that took an enormous amount of hard work? No! But prices aren’t set by principles of fairness: They’re set by the market. These are economic decisions, not emotional ones.

Is it fair that I’ll pay $20 a month for an email newsletter about book publishing, which is produced by a handful of people, but wouldn’t pay $20 a month for online access to The Boston Globe, which is the collective work of hundreds of talented journalists? No! But fairness doesn’t much enter into it. I’ve heard lots of journalists use words like “deserve” and “earned” when they describe why they want the paywalls to go up around their work. But the goal is to maximize the economic return on journalists’ work, not to act out of anger.

Requiring payment isn’t always fruitful than encouraging it. Imagine for a moment that instead of asking for subscriptions, Arment had put up an iron-clad, Times-UK-style paywall — pay $1 a month or else no more Instapaper for you. In that case, there’d probably be some users who’d pay up who wouldn’t with Arment’s soft sell.

But Instapaper has a classic competitive substitute good: a very similar service called Read It Later. Is Read It Later as good as Instapaper? I don’t think so — but it’s plenty good enough for the vast majority of people. A hard Instapaper paywall might raise revenue, but at the cost of driving away a huge chunk of customers off whom money might be made some other way — through advertising, say, or by being converted later to paying customers, or simply by promoting the app to their friends.

Most news is the very definition of a substitutable good. If CNN.com put up a paywall, MSNBC.com would be there waiting to collect the free traffic. Ditto The Washington Post and The New York Times. Most online news consumers aren’t looking for specific stories; they’re looking for something to occupy their time for a few minutes that makes them feel better informed. There will always be lots of free alternatives that can fill those duties. That’s why, while I’m happy to see news organizations experimenting with pay models, I’ve also been happy to see them setting reasonable expectations for the outcome and thinking a lot about how to maximize both revenue and audience.

Love and affection drives money. Why are people giving Marco Arment money for nothing? Because they love it. Check out these tweets:

In the online world of free, people need a damned good reason to fork over their money. It had better solve a problem, bring consistent delight, or otherwise earn devotion. A small but devoted audience can be worth more than a big, uncommitted one. How many people love their local newspaper?

May 05 2010

08:00
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Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl