One of the great reads I have enjoyed lately is the long form essays featured on the New Yorker’s web site. The site has a very nice, clean layout that encourages easy reading. Articles are spread out over multiple pages and many of them, even cover stories, are available free online. Long form writing has often been maligned in this era of clips and tweets, but the New Yorker proves that longer works can exist over the wires. Back in the early days of the web this seemed unlikely; dialup speed and awkward monitors made the reading experience stilted to say the least. But today, it’s nothing to take in a half-hour’s worth of text with your iPad on the couch.
After a few months’ freeloading, I figured I should investigate the magazine’s iPad app. Mostly the app appears to mimic the web site, but, unlike the site, it provides access to the whole magazine. It seemed like a good way to access stories directly without going through a browser at least. But then came the shock. The app is free to download, but you have to purchase each individual issue weekly for the princely sum of $5.99. The app offers no subscription and no free content. Compare this to the print edition where the most expensive international subscription works out to just over $2.50 an issue.
Such a strange approach to digital and print pricing is not unusual in this uncertain time. The value of the digital product is still undetermined and legacy publications (of which the New Yorker may be the most ‘legacy’ of all) still push readers towards paper rather than pixels.
Undeterred by the publisher’s digital price gouging, I considered a paper subscription. But where this tale becomes very strange is when I managed to find a hard copy of the magazine. Rather than the clean and uncluttered experience of reading on the web site, I was confronted with thin, pulpy paper, almost brown, and as textured as a Handee Ultra. Tightly packed text with precious little white space fought furiously against full page and half page advertisements designed to look like editorial. The pages were so busy, I had trouble finding where stories began and finished so littered were they with:
(Continued from page 37)
…and so on.
That was the moment I stopped worrying and learned to love free stuff on the web. If my choice is between a full digital magazine that costs in excess of $280 a year, an unreadable paper magazine for significantly less, or around half that same content in nice surrounds through a web browser for nothing, then really, it’s no choice at all, is it?
Making content freely available is a great way to build audience, especially when the content and its delivery are of high quality. But paid content needs to build on that base. What are readers paying for? More content? Better design? Convenience? These are all questions that need to be considered in the early stages of building an online platform. Too often publications like the New Yorker start with a finished product (like the magazine) and work backwards to create their other offerings. It’s a strategy that makes for a strangely disjointed reading experience.