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.


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

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