The End of Zite–The Beginning of News360

Here’s the problem.  Every day on the internet millions of articles are published and some of them are ones I really want to read.  Finding those articles that are perfect for my peculiar interests is like finding Malaysia Flight 370’s black boxes in the middle of the Indian ocean.  Over the years various genius programmers have come up with systems for customized news reading.  The big breakthrough was RSS feeds, and then Google Reader.  But even then, you’d get hundreds or thousands of articles to sift through each day.  What’s really needed is some kind of AI smarts to find less than 50 daily news stories that can be quickly perused.  You want your news feed to only have stories that matter most to you.  After the iPad came out I discovered Zite, and thought I had found news nirvana.  Well, Zite is going, and I’m trying News360.

news360

What the Internet gives, the internet also taketh away.  Time and again I fall in love with technology only to have it taken away.  Remember Lala?  Now I’ll be losing Zite.  To me, Zite is the one app that made tablets great.  Zite was the best Internet newsreader I ever used.  I liked it far better than Google Reader, another technology that was prematurely wrenched from my hands. 

Zite has been bought out by Flipboard.  Now I have nothing against Flipboard, except that I don’t enjoy using it.  Flipboard uses a different metaphor for presenting the news, built around do-it-yourself magazines.  Zite was more like a customized newswire feed.  Zite learned what I was interested in reading, and queued up a bunch of great stories for me to check out.  The more I used it, the smarter Zite got, finding just the right stuff to read.  This is very efficient for reading from the fire hose of news stories available every day on the net.

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Curated News

Like the curated music site Pandora, what voracious news readers want is a reader robot to pre-read the news and decide what we’d like to read.  Zite was my reading robot, but now it’s being killed off.  One of the most popular reading robots is Flipboard, and it has bought Zite in hopes of using its technology to be a better reading robot.

I’ve used Flipboard from time to time but have never been comfortable with it.  If they integrate Zite’s intelligence into Flipboard I might start to like it, but even then I don’t like the visual layout of Flipboard.  For now I’m experimenting with News360 – which Paul N. Shapiro turned me on to – so I don’t need to worry about the Flipboard Zite merger.  Check your app store and try it out – News360.

News360 does one thing that Zite didn’t and I always wanted, it has a website front end so I can use from my desktop.  The controls are nicer on the iOS and Android versions, but the website version is quicker to use, and links me directly to the news story as it appears on the web.  The tablet versions of News360 take a bit more clicking to get to the actual reading.  Zite was the tops for reformatting web pages for easy reading.  News360 is fancier in some ways, with more options, but it takes more clicks to get to the full reading copy.  I haven’t decided if I like News360’s rolling cubes or not.  On the iOS version, it appears the full text can be scrolled on a cube site.

Thumbs Up or Down

There are millions of blogs, magazines, newspaper, journals, websites that publish something new every day.  Even if you find all your favorite publishers and check their site daily, you’d spend way too much time going through stuff you don’t want to read.  And even with a good news reader that zeroes in on your interests, it will find stories you’ll want to look at but still waste your time.  For example, News360 sent me “Einstein’s ‘spooky’ theory may lead to ultra-secure internet.”  The topic interests me, but the piece was short, fluffy and lacking in any real content.  So far, no news collector system I’ve found is perfect, or even close to perfect. 

Reading Robots take training.  And for that, you need ones you can thumbs up and thumbs down on what they give you to read.  However, I can’t thumbs down the article above because it was skimpy, otherwise News360 might stop sending me other articles on quantum mechanics.  You have to apply your intelligence to training your robot.

I’ve just started using News360 and I’m trying to train it not to send me stories I see on the nightly news.  I already waste 30 minutes a day watching the TV news so I don’t want to see those stories again.  I also subscribe to The New York Times – so I don’t want that kind of general news in my news feed.  However, I still want special interest news from The New York Times because I don’t catch everything.  By unchecking Top Stories I got rid of most of the general news.

News360 also found me this morning “The future is coming. 6 ways it will change everything.”  This is still speculation, but it’s the kind I like.  I’d like more substance, but News360 has quickly zeroed in on my interests.

Training a system to be perfect is hard.  I told News360 I’m interested in steampunk, so it found “This $80K Steampunk Inspired Baron Safe-Box…” – that’s interesting, and has visually appealing photos, but ultimately fluff I don’t want to waste my time on.  I’m going to thumbs down the article and hope News360 finds me something more substantial about steampunk – but ultimately I might have to kill that topic.  I’ve already killed the topic Leonardo Da Vinci because News360 kept giving me stuff about a TV show.  Like I said, no system is perfect.

Sometimes New360 makes a mistake that turns out to be wonderful.  I told News360 I wasn’t interested in science fiction movies, but was interested in science fiction books.  This morning it found me  “The Glorious Incoherence of Divergent” at The Atlantic.  Now most everything at The Atlantic is über-readable, but what made this piece a treasure trove is it tied in Philip K. Dick’s books to current movies and YA books.  I’m very into Philip K. Dick, so I forgive News360 giving me a movie review.  It was smart enough to know the article wasn’t just about the movie.

News360 does allow me to block sources when I use the tablet app after I’ve thumbs down something.  This can be dangerous.  Often a news story will come from many sites – it’s been syndicated – so be sure and don’t nix something you like.  But if it’s a single site that you’re sure you don’t want to read from, this is a great feature.  Last night I blocked MTV.com.  I’m just not that young anymore.

I wished News360 had some way of asking about the quality of the content.  A way to mark something that’s too fluffy, or even too verbose.  I also wish it allowed me to diss certain kinds of formatting.  I hate slideshow news – like seeing a headline for the twelve types of dogs that don’t like cats, and then having to click through twelve pages just to see the names of twelve breeds of cat hating dogs.  I think these slideshow stories are a ways to generate ad clicks, which I find fucking annoying as hell.  Just use a goddamn list, please.

Discovering Cool Publishers

One of the most brilliant side-effects of using a reader robot is discovering new publishers.  If you go to a big bookstore and browse the magazine section you might see a couple thousand magazines.  But on the web there are millions.  Discovering new publishers is pretty much serendipity.  If you pay attention to the sources of the articles you like, you’ll discover new sites to read in general.

Theoretically if your reading habits were very specific, you could just bookmark several sites that pertain to your topic and view them daily.  But I’ve yet to find any site that every article they publish is always of interest to me.  So even having my Reader Robot read my favorite magazines is a big help.  I wished sites like News360 had a configuration page that allowed me to list my favorite publications.   Some Reader Robots allow for adding RSS feeds, but News360 doesn’t seem to do that.

News360.com

The best thing about News360 is it’s web site.  Most other magazine styled news aggregators are designed as apps for tablets and smart phones only.  I’m an old fashion sit in the desk chair kind of guy, so I appreciate being able to look at the news on a 27” monitor.  Even though my Nexus 7 has more pixels than my 1080p monitor, I can scan content faster on the big screen.

I’m not used to News360 on my tablets yet, not like I am to Zite, but I’m adapting quickly.  And now that I have a magazine style newsreader for my Chrome browser, I’ll probably be even more addicted to reading the news.

JWH – 3/25/14

Is The Daily Newspaper Dying?

I often find myself lamenting the passing of institutions I assumed would always be permanent fixtures in my life.

My parents, who grew up during the heyday of radio, long before television, lived in a world of two daily newspapers, The Miami Herald in the morning, and The Miami News in the evening.  I was even a paperboy for the News back in 1965, but it died a long time ago.  During my life I saw many cities close their afternoon papers.  Now, all over the country, morning papers are hurting, and some are even disappearing.  I’m wondering if morning papers are going the way of the buggy whip.

Newspaper sections 

My wife and I quit getting the newspaper years ago.  We kept subscribing for years because it was a lifelong habit, but seldom read it.  But we finally realized that most often our daily issues went directly to the recycle bin, and so we stopped taking The Commercial Appeal.  I see fewer people bringing the paper to work, and I assume there are college kids at the university where I worked that never got into the habit of reading the paper with breakfast.

This is sad.  Months ago I bought an issue of The New York Times to read the old fashion way, but I couldn’t. I love reading The New York Times online, but I no longer had the patience to read a printed paper, which involves a lot of flipping, folding, jumping from section to section, and getting ink on my fingers.  My old eyes find it painful to read the paper’s small print.  Susan and I aren’t alone in giving up on our hometown paper, there’s even a web site, Newspaper Death Watch, devoted to the passing of this very old tradition.  Should we all go back to subscribing to save this fading technology?  Are there things newspaper publishers could do to revitalize their product?

I read books and listen to music on electronic devices, so why don’t I read my local paper on my iPad?  On the new miniseries Under the Dome, a newspaper reporter talks to an older woman who tells her she doesn’t take the paper, but gets her news from the Internet like everyone else.  Ouch. 

We have to think about why people were so devoted to newspapers in the past.  For many pre-Internet citizens, reading the paper was the only form of reading they did.  The paper offered news, gossip, social media, advertisements, job want ads, for sale listings, sports scores, stock and bond quotes, cartoons, horoscopes, movies times, recipes, letters to the editor, wedding announcements, photos, etc.  Newspapers packed a lot of entertainment value.  And from this list we can see the answer to why papers are losing subscribers.  The Internet provides the same content, but faster, better, cheaper, and it’s highly customized.  In fact, smartphones, pulling content from the Internet, provides people exactly what they got from newspapers and more, but in a much handier delivery and reading system.  Progress marches on.  It’s cruel, but so it goes.

Newspapers were a delivery system for communication and content – pretty much a printed internet.  I feel sad that all those reporters, editors, linotype operators, pressmen, truckers, delivery people have lost their jobs, but I hope they got jobs at new Internet businesses.  I’d hate to think that local people lost their jobs to out-of-town companies. 

Long before the Internet, many reporters had moved to TV, and we have far more TV stations with news programs than we ever had papers.  So what I’m lamenting isn’t a lack of reporting, but the system in which the news was reported.   If you’re interested, you might find the Newspaper Death Watch interesting to read, it’s subtitle is “Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism.”

To be honest, I’ve never been happy with television journalism, so I wonder if there isn’t something potentially better than the printed newspaper and local TV news show?  More and more papers are working with paywalls to create online newspapers, that include print, photos, sound and video.  The New York Times is excellent, except for their pricing, but if everyone subscribed to it, where would we get local, state and regional news?  Can local news sites make a go of providing news that can compete with TV and national web sites?  Is it possible to make hometown news site?

Anyone can collect their favorite links to a bunch of sites and recreate much of the content people used to get from their local newspaper.  Can a newspaper publisher, with their editors, reporters, and staff create a central site that essentially recreates the old features of a newspaper?  How many people would give up their favorite news, weather, TV listing, movie listing, Craigslist apps to use a centralized service?  Has the App-ization of the world killed off a general purpose tool like the newspaper?  Probably.

I shouldn’t mourn the victims of progress, but I do, even though my buying habits are killing what I miss.  I recently bought my local paper for nostalgia’s sake.  I didn’t like it.  I was like that baby on the YouTube video trying to use a magazine after playing with an iPad.  It just didn’t feel right.  I guess I’m dumb.  I keep buying vinyl records, even though they’re a pain in-the-ass to play.  And I still buy books even though my eyes love my Kindle.  And I keep writing crying-in-my-beer blog posts about the old ways disappearing.  When will I learn?

JWH – 6/30/13

My Favorite Free Newspapers and Magazines on the Web

When The New York Times put up a paywall I stopped reading it.  I love The New York Times, but $180 a year is outrageous for what was once free.  I was even more shocked at that the same content costs even more to read on a tablet or smart phone.  I found ways around their monthly page limits, but ultimately I just gave up trying to regularly read the paper.  I’m not against newspapers and magazines charging money for their content, I just think it needs to be a fair price.  Of course a fair price is like beauty, and is set in the eyes of the beholder.  $15 a month might be the right price for upscale New Yorkers, but not to me.  If The New York Times charged $29.95 a year for digital subscriptions, I’d be a subscriber.  Instead I decided to go looking for other sources of news.

By the way, I have a weird concept about periodical pricing.  A newspaper that produces 365 editions a year sounds like it should cost more than a magazine that produces twelve issues a year.  But I can only read so much per day, and only involve with myself with so many periodicals.  On average, I read about as much from a daily newspaper as I do from a weekly or monthly journal, so in my mind, they each require a reading grazing fee, which should be about equal.  The difference between magazines and newspaper titles is not quantity, but quality of writing and the amount I can read.  Since I can only read an hour or less a day on periodical publications, I’m not willing to spend more than $15 a month total for my newsy reading.

As long as some publishers offer free content I’m going to consider it first.  The internet is full of free content, but which free source of essays and articles are the best?  What content is worth paying for if it was reasonably priced?  I pay $9.99 a month to Rdio for streaming digital music.  I subscribe to The Rolling Stone Magazine and The New York Review of Books on my iPad.  I’m open to paying for more content, but the price has to be right.

Commercial newspapers and magazines generally produce the best writing anywhere because they pay professional writers.  In searching for the best content on the web, I tend to find the highest concentration of quality writing at print magazine and newspaper sites.  These free sites are so good I would pay for them if I had to and the price was right.

And paywalls sites still offer lots of free content. The New York Times is very generous by allowing readers following links to read full articles.  Other sites, like New Scientist suck readers in but quickly cut off the flow of free words.  But even NS will offer some free complete reads.

The sample articles I use come from my Evernote clippings or from my Twitter feed, which I use to remember articles I read and like.

the-atlantic

The Atlantic

Far and away, my favorite free online magazine is The Atlantic.  Their website provides content from their print magazine along with original content written just for the web.  I subscribe to their daily updates which recommends 3-5 articles to read each day.  The Atlantic’s web reporting equals their top tier print reporting.

 

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Los Angeles Times

I started noticing the Los Angeles Times when Zite frequently sent me there to read book reviews.  Zite is a tablet app that does for article reading what Pandora does for music.  You thumbs up and down what you read and Zite finds more of what you like.  The LA Times evidently is writing more of what I like to read.

 

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The Smithsonian

I can’t figure out if content for The Smithsonian is blocked or if they just end every article with “subscribe now for more coverage” to scare you into thinking there’s more to be had if you plunk down some dollars.  I keep finding plenty of free stuff to read.  Fascinating stuff.  Actually, more great stuff to read even if I read 24×7.  Here is the listing for the last March, 2013 issue.  And here is the start of the archive section.

 

the-guardian

The Guardian

The Guardian is another newspaper that Zite often takes me to.   Zite and Google links me to foreign newspapers, which is one of the great pluses of the world wide web.  Zite knows I love book reviews and both the LA Times and The Guardian reviews a lot of books.

 

brain-pickings

Brain Pickings

Brain Pickings isn’t a commercial newspaper or magazine, but it’s so professional that it should be.  Maria Popova is a professional writer who has created a beautiful web site that she calls “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.”  Brain Pickings is classy blog written by a professional writer with amazing graphic design skills.  I wish Auxiliary Memory was 1/100th as good.

 

edge

Edge.org

John Brockman’s Edge.org is where the world’s smartest people hang out.  The site is built around conversations with cutting edge thinkers, but it also focuses on the latest science books.  The conversations are often a narrative overview of a current project.  Edge.org is not a newspaper or magazine, but the quality of content is so great that it competes well with professional journalism.  The contributors are major science writers and philosophers, writing about research on the front lines of new knowledge.

 

Most sites on the web are free.  It’s hard to imagine that pay sites can compete with so much quality free content.  My six favorite sites are just a drop in the gigantic WWW bucket.  My goal is to find the right mixture of reporting that gives me the best puzzle pieces for mapping reality.  All too often we read news that is immediately forgotten.  I want to read articles that educate me with a lasting impact.  In fact, I often think reading less on the internet is better.

Like junk food with empty calories, the web is full of junk data and empty facts.  Brilliant articles that are available for all to share should have a great impact on our society.  It used to be people had to buy books and journals to get quality information.  Now all seven billion of us have access to a tremendous amount of free knowledge.  We can all be renaissance men and women.  The quest is to find the needle in the haystack article to read each day that makes a lasting impression.

Tools like Zite let me quickly review 20-30 newly published articles each day, out of thousands.  But the real goal, is to find the single article that’s worthy of study, contemplation and memory.

However, there is a problem with this system.  It only gets me the free articles.  What if the best articles still cost money?  Is the best knowledge being shared today, or withheld?

JWH – 3/3/13

Zite versus RSS

Up until recently RSS was the best technology for taming the Internet.  You selected a RSS reader, like Google Reader, and subscribed to all the sites you thought valuable.  The trouble is most sites send too many posts, so you get way more feeds than you want to read.

What I dreamed about was software that would look at what’s being published on the Internet while being able to read my mind and select just the stories I would love to read.  Zite isn’t that software, but it’s pretty damn close.  It does all the hard work of surfing the net far and wide to find what I might like to read, and then slowly learns from what I really like.  It becomes a customized magazine.

When I got my iPad I started out with the popular Flipboard app that supposedly sent me the stories I wanted to read, but not really.  I then discovered Zite, and within days, nearly every story they send to the main section is one I want to read.  I get stories from The New York Times, The Economist, and from blogs I never heard of, as well as hundreds of other sources famous or obscure, but they all produce great essays and articles I want to read.  Of course those same sites might produce dozens of other articles too, ones other people want to read but not me, but Zite doesn’t send me those.  This is how Zite beats RSS.

As I read I thumbs up or thumbs down what I like, just like with Pandora and music, and the Zite engine pays attention.  Whatever kinds of algorithms Zite uses, they are very smart.

Sadly, Zite is only for the iPad.  I wished they had a desktop version.  Zite has made me love my iPad, but I spend most of my time at my desk.

I really look forward to reading Zite every day, or even twice a day.  I’m thrilled by the content it finds for me.  It is the best of the best of the internet, suited for my tastes.

There are some obstacles to overcome.  Are there stories I’d also like to read that Zite misses?  For instance Zite introduced me to the website The Millions, a site for book lovers, with two great articles, “(Re)Imagining True Lives: On Historical Fiction” and “The Million Basic Plots.”  While in Zite and reading the article, there’s a button for the Web.  I pushed it and it takes me to The Millions home page where I can read other articles.  And if I find another one I like, I can click the Options button and thumbs up that article too.

Yet, with all the great reading Zite provides I still wonder what I’m missing.  But Zite provided an answer to that too, with “Why keeping up with RSS is poisonous to Productivity, sanity” by Jacqui Cheng at ARS Technica.  Cheng makes a good point about living with ignorance.  The reason why RSS is flawed is because it gives me too much to read.  And thinking about all the stuff I might be wanting to read is just as flawed.  Cheng said she went without RSS and just read a few good sites and felt just as informed.  I’ve always wondered if I could pick just one news site, or newspaper, or news magazine, or even news television show, and get all the news I really needed.  But when I think about doing that, I start fearing what I would be missing again.

Zite seems to be a great compromise.  My experiment now will be to see if Zite can be my only source of news by being the best news aggregator.  Zite was recently bought by CNN which is putting a huge scare in us Zite fans, but owners of Zite and CNN swear they will not allow Zite to become a conduit for CNN News.

When I read Zite I use several built-in tools.  It has buttons for Instapaper, Twitter, Facebook, Email and other social functions.  I have a Twitter account that I use like Instapaper.  Most web sites now have icons for tweeting all their articles.  To remember what I’ve read, or want to read, I just tweet it to myself.  But I’m also using Instapaper to compare the two.  I email articles to friends I think would like them, and on rare occasions I’ll send an article to Facebook.

Zite begs for the synergy of all these programs, and it would be cool if Zite eventually incorporated their functionality into Zite.  Zite needs to be incorporated into the browser so it will work from desktops including PC, Mac, and Linux, and it needs to work with smartphones and all tablets.  Instead of saving to Instapaper or Twitter, it should let me mark the articles I want to save to call up within Zite.  And it should allow people to share their Zite reading with other people.  Wouldn’t it be fun to see what your friends or famous people like to read?

Zite has a lot of possibilities, but it needs to get away from the iPad only platform.  Zite is the first app that I feel makes my iPad worth owning.

Now there are some storm clouds on the horizon for apps like Zite, Flipboard, Pulse and others.  They take content from other sites, often removing their ads, and presenting them to you in a reformatted, easy to read format.  This undermines the financial foundation of the original news sites, but it’s well within the link sharing paradigm of the world wide web.

The Internet is killing paper newspapers and magazines.  And paper newspapers and magazines are having a hard time transitioning to the internet and find new financial models of support.  These news aggregators are a threat to them, but if both sides work together it could be a big win-win situation.  Newspapers and magazines have always had the same problem as RSS feeds, they present you will more stories than you want to read.  In our fast paced world that’s only going faster and faster, that’s too much of a time waster.

To see what all these apps look like:

JWH – 9/7/11

A New Kind of Reading: iEssays

What’s the best economic model for finding the absolute best essays to read?

I decided to go paperless with my periodical reading back in February, 2008, and my last magazine subscription (Popular Photography) has finally run out.  At one time I subscribed to over 20 magazines. I love magazines, and I spent six years working in a periodicals department at a university library back in the 1980s. 

At first this effort was to do my part in fighting global warming, but over the last few years I’ve realized that magazines aren’t the most efficient way to read about the world.  Out of a year’s worth of The New Yorker, I might only read 1/20th of the printed pages, and it was probably less.  I now subscribe to The New Yorker on my Kindle, but I don’t even look at every issue, so I’m wasting my money.  I do wish I read each issue cover to cover because it’s a great magazine, but in reality I spend far more time reading on the Internet.  There’s something compelling about jumping from one web site to the next grazing on information.

Long before the Internet was a gleam in its designers’ eyes, magazines and newspapers were the world wide web of information.  Most print magazines and newspapers have a web presence today, and they all compete for eyes and dollars, while still trying not to compete against their own print editions, but I can’t imagine that lasting for many more years.  With ebooks, smartphones and tablets all offering periodicals and news reading apps, how can paper periodicals compete?

I wish I could take a news pill every morning and just know what’s happening around the world, but that’s not possible – yet.  But here’s the modern reality of reading – petabytes of data are being created daily, but we all still live in a 24 hour world, and at most I might spend 7 of my 168 weekly hours keeping up the world by reading short non-fiction essays, and when I’m busy or lazy it’s a lot less.

The Challenge of Keeping Current

We live in exciting times, and this is a happening world, but it is surprising how ill informed we are about what’s going on.  For most of my life I’ve watched the half-hour evening news and then supplemented it with some magazine reading, and figured I was doing pretty good keeping up with current events.  But I realize now that I’m not.  Too much of the evening news on television is worthless.  Are daily stories about natural disasters, politics, and economics really that valuable to keeping up with external reality beyond our tiny lives?

In any 24 hour period, what really are the most worthwhile stories to know about?  Let’s say we spend 60 minutes a day, whether surfing the net, scanning RSS feeds, watching television, reading a newspaper or magazine – what’s the most productive way to spend those 60 minutes in terms of learning about what’s going on in reality?

Generally, we all have a passive attitude towards acquiring news.  We take in whatever’s in front of us, whether it’s the NBC Nightly News or Slashdot.org.  But what if we read with conscious intent?  What if we systematically reviewed data sources ourselves, instead of letting editors at newspapers, magazines and TV shows decide what we need to know?

The Old Way

Before radio and television, people read newspapers.  Your daily paper might present 25 stories and you picked the ones you wanted to read.  With mass broadcasting on radio and TV, news was bundled into shows of 30 or 60 minutes and you just sat through all the stories, even if you really weren’t interested in all of them.  If you wanted to know more you subscribed to magazines and hoped they presented in-depth coverage for stuff you missed from your newspaper, radio and TV.  Before the plague of attention deficit syndrome hit the world, magazines often presented long essays, thousands of words on a topic, offering far more data than you’d get in a one hour documentary.

The Current Way

The Internet publishes thousands, if not millions, of stories every day.  There are many ways of finding stories to read.  You can go to a editor driven sites like Google News, MSN, Slashdot, Engadget, or any of countless other outlets and scan for interesting items to read.  Or you can go to social sites like StumbleUpon or Digg and hope serendipity will bring you a great news surprise.  Or, you can add all your favorite sites to a RSS feed reader and try to manage the internet fire hose of data that way.

With the advent of the tablet computer we now hold a magic magazine that can overcome the limitations of the printing press. 

The Better Way?

Money makes a great editor, in more ways than one.  I guarantee if you go buy copies of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Scientific American, or any of the many top printed periodicals and read the longest articles you’ll get the best bang for you reading time.  These publications pay writers top dollars and there is a kind of survival of the fittest in information quality going on.  However, we still have the problem of subscribing to paper copies, or tediously searching the net for the web editions.  And whether we pay for paper copies or subscribe to digital editions, we’ll buy a lot of content we won’t read.

What we need is the iTunes of essays, iEssays or a Readers Digital Digest.  Articles under 1,000 words should be 49 cents, 1,000-4,999 should be $1, and stories greater than 5,000 words that aren’t considered books, should be $1-3.  If you buy one $5.99-6.99 magazine a week, you’re spending a $1 a day for essays, and I doubt many people would read more than one long essay a day, so these prices are about equal to average magazine reading.  Leave the under 500 word content to free web sites supported by ads.

Picture The New York Times Most Popular section but getting content from hundreds or thousands of magazines, newspapers and web sites.  This is how I read the NY Times, start at this page and only reading the best/most popular articles.

At our iEssays site, we could follow best seller lists set up by topics to quickly find the Hit Essay of the Day from a variety of subject categories.  They can also keep lists for Hits of the Week, Month or Year.  Imagine sitting down with your iPad once a day with the intent of spending 30-60 minutes reading a very high quality article and you’re willing to spend a buck.  This would definitely weed out the crap and silly stories you mind at most social news sites. 

And it’s important that the site not charge a subscription for the whole site.  What we want to do is generate hit essays like iTunes creates hit singles.  It would be important to still read newspaper sites or watch TV news to get a general impression of the news, but if you wanted to really learn something new every day about the world, I think the iEssays would be the best way to go.

Also, to help the survival of the fittest process, I think as part of your purchase you get to send an article to up to five friends, or link it on your blog.  So articles could be promoted up the Hit List by purchase votes, recommendation votes, or link hit votes.  The New York Times allows free reading to its articles if they come in via links.  I think that’s an innovative way to promote stories and still collect payments.

And finally, I think the iEssays should be an app that stores your purchased articles forever in the cloud, so they become part of your digital memory.

Conclusion

I’m not expecting this system to supplant subscription systems.  Most people prefer passive news gathering.  Most people are happy to subscribe to a newspaper or magazine and just skim and read, tossing the issue out when they are done.  But I think there’s enough people like me who are annoyed at buying far more content than we read, and wanting to get the most for our money.  It’s like cable TV plans, spend $60 a month and get 200 channels.  Some people don’t mind channel surfing, but I don’t.  Not only would I like a la cart cable, I think I’d like to buy television by the show.

Unless magazines and newspapers go the way of subscription music, I’d prefer paying by the article rather than the issue.  I pay $4.99 a month to Rdio and get to listen to essentially everything.  I use its social tools and charts to narrow my listening.  But I think by the essay pricing would help me find the best article reading the fastest.

Right now The New York Times charges $20 a month for unlimited tablet access.  That seems way too expensive when compared to what I get from the music business.  If The New York Times also presented content from many major newspapers and magazines, then I might consider a $20 monthly bill, like how I spend for TV and movies through Netflix.  But the NY Times is trying to price their digital newspaper like the old paper copies, and this is different world.  Netflix and Rhapsody are changing content pricing models in people’s minds and I don’t think they will go away.

I think the Rhapsody pricing model is superior to the iTunes pricing model, which is superior to the old CD pricing model.  iTunes sells hits, and I want to buy hit essays.  I don’t want to buy whole papers and read just a handful of its stories.  I want either the Netflix/Rhapsody model which is gigantic piles of content for one low monthly price, and I’d use built in tools to find what I want, or I want the iTunes model, where I buy just the hits. 

When it comes to reading quality essays (or short stories and poems for that matter), I predict the price per song model is superior for quickly finding the best reads.  And ultimately I think more writers and publishers would benefit from this model too.  If I spent $20 a month for The New York Times I doubt I buy any only periodical.  Which is why I can’t make myself spend $20 for one online newspaper.  If they added 20 top magazines to their deal, I would gladly pay $20 a month, but I’d rather pay $1 an article for an even larger pool of hit providers.

The monthly library model like Netflix and Rhapsody is great for music, movies and TV shows if you like to try out lots of different songs or programs.  But reading is different, at least for me.  I have a limited amount of time I spend reading, and I only want the very best stories to read.  It’s like people who prefer iTunes to Rhapsody.  They just want to get a few hits to play and aren’t concerned with trying out one or two dozen new albums a week.  That’s why I think some enterprising Readers Digest wannabes should apply the iTunes model to creating iEssays.  Or if the Best American Series editors came out with a monthly digital issue rather than a series of books once a year.

JWH – 7/17/11

Are You Willing to Pay for News?

If you subscribe to newspapers or magazines then you are already paying for news, so the precise question is:  Are you willing to pay for news on the Internet?  One June 1 The Times (London) is going behind a paywall, and The New York Times is planning on trying yet another online subscription plan next year.  The gold standard of news has always been to read a world-class newspaper.  For years people have gotten used to reading these papers online for free, but now it looks like free days are over.

For most of my life I got my news from the plebian news source, television.  Since the 1990s, Internet has introduced me to the world’s great newspapers and I now realize their value, and I have decided to become an online subscriber.  I just have to decide which paper to marry for my news partner.

The old way of doing things was to subscribe to the local paper and it would include a syndication of state, national and international news stories.  Newspapers were the world wide web before the WWW.  Now, I’m not sure that’s the way to go.  I’m thinking I’d rather have the best news writing, and go with something like The New York Times.  But if everyone thought like that, we’d end up with half a dozen newspapers for the U.S.A.

But then I’m not typical.  I think most people prefer local news.  It’s sad to admit, but I pay zero attention to what goes on in my city and state.  My local paper has a beautiful, and extremely easy to read, free web site, but I don’t read it.  They also offer a modest $10 a month digital edition that’s closer to the looks of a newspaper, but their free site is so nice I can’t imagine even spending that much money.

I think it’s going to be awhile before people pay for local news online, but if The New York Times and the The Times are indicators of the future, will people be willing to pay for a national newspaper?  I don’t think we will know until publishers cut off the free news spigot.  And that’s what the The Times is doing June 1.  The Times will even cut Google off from indexing the paper.  That’s going to be a major experiment. 

So far The New York Times has always kept it’s free web edition going concurrent with any of its paid experimental editions, which have always failed.  I do read the free portions of TimesReader 2.0 that I got when downloading Adobe Reader.  The full edition is $4.62 a week.  $20 a month seems steep compared to what I get from Rhapsody for $10 a month – access to 9 million songs across many major and minor record labels.  The New York Times is preparing a new paid edition for iPad owners, and I think that might be the turning point for switching from paying for printed news to paying for online news.

If I had an iPad I would subscribe to The New York Times, if the web site edition closed down.  I would also consider subscribing to magazines for the iPad.  Again, which magazines I bought would depend if they weren’t available online.  Right now I have little incentive to subscribe to electronic editions of The New Yorker or The Atlantic or Wired because they offer too much content for free.

I used to spend hundreds a dollars a year for magazine subscriptions, but cut them all out because I believe it’s more Earth friendly to read the content online.  And I don’t always expect to get a free lunch, but as long as the content is free I have no incentive to pay either.  I pay Rhapsody $10 a month because I want the music and I don’t want to steal it.  There’s plenty of free legal music on the web, but it’s too much trouble to collect.  For $10 a month I get legal access to 98% of what’s for sale.  I’d rather pay $10 a month to a service like Rhapsody if they distributed legal news and magazines reprints, than make individual subscriptions, but that’s not available.

I’m currently pay Safari Books Online $34 a month for online access to 10,000 plus computer books.  Thus, I’m proving I’m willing to pay for online content.  But I don’t always like the deals being offered.  The online editions of The New Yorker and Scientific American are more expensive than discount offers I get for the paper editions.  No incentive there to subscribe.  I don’t like paying print edition prices for digital editions – it feels like I’m getting ripped off.  Publishers are saving on paper, printing, shipping, distribution, and postal costs, and they aren’t passing any of those savings on to me.

Rupert Murdoch wants people to pay for what they read on the net, at least when they are reading something he’s selling in the analog world.  Now that’s totally against the way the Internet works now.  The reason why the Internet is great is because you can share links.  If some content goes behind paywalls, the Internet will fork into the free and non-free, that which can be linked, and that which can’t.

The Internet is big enough to handle such diversity, but what does that mean at the social level?  We get part of the population reading high quality paid journalism, and the rest will live off of free blog news.  It will also mean those sites that depend on ad revenue will have more readers, those fleeing the paid sites, thus beefing up their financial model.

But think of it this way.  Do you prefer paying for HBO shows, without ads, or watching NBC shows with tons of ads?  That also means, any content I subscribe to on the net better be ad free.  If the TimesSelect 2.0 was $5 a month, instead a week, I’d probably subscribe now if it was totally ad free.  The free, but extremely limited version, has a few ads, but they are still tastefully placed so I can ignore them.  And the amount of great content the New York Times provides with the free edition of the TimesSelect 2.0 also discourages me from paying.

Publishers are going to have a hard time selling content online, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  It’s better for the economy, and creates more jobs if we pay for what we read.  And we get better written news.  But publishers can’t sell quality content in one place if they also give it away in another just as easy to get to location.

JWH – 3/31/10

Going Paperless 4 – Alternative Methods

I’m not sure how many people are interested in the topic of going paperless since it gets few hits on the stats page – but I’m enjoying exploring the idea.  And I did get an email from Adam Kadleck suggesting I try out Zinio, an online magazine service.  Since he works for the company he also provided me with a sample subscription to Saveur Magazine, a colorful periodical about cuisine.

A huge shortcoming of the Kindle is its lack of ability to show photographs and color graphics.  I remember reading an early complaint about the Kindle from a Slashdot kid who whined the Kindle couldn’t handle comics and porn -reading material that Zinio can handle. 

A magazine is not very magazine-like on the Kindle.  Zinio sells magazines and has a custom software reader so magazine pages look exactly like they do in their paper form.  It even fakes page turning with graphics and sound.  Zinio is paperless but with more of the natural features of paper.  Saveur Magazine would not work on the Kindle.  Without the appetizing photos of the food it would lose much of its appeal.

The Zinio software reader works very well on my 19″ wide-screen LCD monitor showing two full page at a time.  However, I need to zoom in to read the content.  Zinio makes this a breeze, but I wonder if I had a 22″ monitor if I could read without zooming.  The height of my 19″ monitor is about an inch less than the height of a standard magazine after you take into account the Zinio menu.  The screen view on 22″ monitor could well be the same height as a paper magazine.

Right now Zinio has a decent selection of magazines, but far from the selection of a good bookstore.  And like ebooks, the issue of the pricing of e-magazines is still questionable.  Why pay the same subscription price for a paperless magazine when the publisher isn’t covering the overhead for paper, printing and postage?  It’s not uncommon to see $5.99 and $6.99 mags at the bookstore – I would think going paperless and using Zinio they should sell for $1.99 at most.  PC World is $19.97 a year on Zinio.  I’ve gotten better offers than that in the mail.  Science is $99.00 – and that seems way too much for electrons.

The photographs on Zinio look pretty good but nowhere near the quality of a slick paper print.  Strangely enough the quality reminds me of the new paper used in Sky & Telescope, a big step down from their old paper.  You can magnify Zinio photographs but they break up.  It would be great if the Zinio photographs offered quality features over print magazines, like larger hi-rez popup views.

The feature I would want the most from Zinio is full text indexing.  I have several years of Sky & Telescope on my shelves, but finding an article means lots of flipping pages.  It would be great if I had a library of Zinio magazines that I could quickly query for instant data.

There is an online company Press Display that offers reading newspapers online in the same way Zinio works for magazines, but their reader is browser based.  Even though many of these newspapers offer free online editions, the ability to read a newspaper that looks like the printed edition does have value, maybe even value worth paying.  The New York Times offers the Times Reader for $14.95 a month.  It’s not a system for seeing the paper as printed, but a online viewer to making newspaper reading better than reading through a web browser, so its yet another alternative to paper.

The problem with these solutions is being tied to your monitor for reading.  Now I don’t mind reading off a monitor – screen resolution is now better than newsprint and fonts can be enlarged to beat tiny magazine typefaces.  What I’d like is to read in my La-Z-Boy, but to do that will require waiting for an ebook reader with a hi-rez color screen the size of a standard magazine page.  I expect such a Star Trek like tablet in the next few years.

I don’t think it will be long before we’ll stop murdering millions of trees just to let people read a couple headlines and do the daily crossword.  Going paperless means changing habits but I think there will be technology to help us to keep our old addictive reading behaviors while adding new features that help us process knowledge.

Going Paperless 5

Jim

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