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Subscription Phobia

February 6, 2010

Why we don’t want to commit to a subscription

A while ago the Nieman Journalism Lab published an article about how the act of subscribing to a news outlet, be it a magazine or newspaper, feels limiting. By paying for The Economist, I’m limiting myself to that one news magazine. I’m not going to subscribe to Maclean’s in addition.

Gun magazine

The only magazines people will subscribe to?

Gina Chen, the author of the article in question, suggests that the web has created a kind of commitment phobia with regard to subscriptions; she writes,

Things changed with the web. Now, if I choose one magazine to subscribe to out of myriad sources, it feels like I’m limiting my options in a way. I don’t want to commit to one publication, one source, one newspaper, one magazine

Don’t follow the hype

This desire to avoid commitment is changing the way we approach news and media far more than other, more hyped inventions. People said the iPad tablet would save newspapers and traditional media (well, not everyone). People argue that social networks completely revamp how we find and read news stories (I don’t disagree, as you can see here). But the relationship between us and news matters more than any device or network. Take this post (again from the Nieman Lab) about how online news is to print journalism as ramen noodles are to steak.

The creation of personalized news hubs (think Pandora but for news instead of music) is one reaction to subscription phobia. As you can see in this article about the many different sites devoted to personalized content, it’s already a popular phenomenon. These hubs want to be the one link you click on when you’re looking for news. The one I’m feeling out, iCurrent, allows you to vote individual stories up or down and choose which categories of news you want to hear (some examples being american politics or golf). iCurrent then learns from your choices and provides you with the news it thinks you want.

Not quite there yet

It’s not perfect, though. iCurrent picks articles up via keywords and not always by subject, so stories are misfiled occasionally. But it’s just in beta, and the simple existence of so many personalized news sites is what matters. If newspapers and magazines want to keep up with the modern consumer, they need to focus less on selling advertising and more on making sure that they understand how we want to relate to them.

I’m fine, for example, with subscribing to a print edition of The Economist. But I don’t know if I would want to pay for a purely online version. For one, I like having the printed copy. But more importantly, when I’m online, I often don’t want to stick to one source.

What will the future look like?

Maybe in the next 10 years, newspapers will be replaced by an organization of freelance journalists and blogs, who are paid by how many hits their stories get on personalized news sites like iCurrent and the many others sure to pop up in the coming years. Maybe they’ll all agree to put up paywalls so we’ll have to subscribe to at least one to get any news just like before the advent of the internet. So newspapers and magazines, if you’re reading, do some research. Ask readers not where they find their news or what they subscribe to, but how they feel about subscribing and how they relate to news providers.


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3 Comments leave one →
  1. panda permalink
    February 9, 2010 4:30 pm

    One of the things that bothers me about news hubs like iCurrent is that if you’re only getting the news “it” thinks you want, you’re only getting the news “it” thinks you want. When the “it” is some program that pretends to recommend news for you as categorized by some faceless newswriter hired by some other faceless news employer, the chances of you ending up with a narrow and/or highly peculiar selection of news is high. We all know what YouTube recommendations are like!

    I select my own news that I want to read too. It’s called “clicking on the links” and, perhaps more importantly, “not clicking on the links.” But the links and headlines are there to be read by me. I don’t read economic news on an every day basis but I want to be presented with economic news, even if it’s not a huge headline, simply because there may be something there that I want to read at some point.

    iCurrent and other news-prediction programs are great for avoiding subscription, but at the same time it’s also great for avoiding diversifying your newsreading.

    Granted, I have never used it.

    • February 19, 2010 9:48 am

      Well, the thing is that you control what news the program provides you. You tell it if you like something and what keywords/categories you want to see on the page. Its recommendations are more controllable than Youtube’s, certainly.

      I don’t think that something like iCurrent will replace Google Reader and such altogether, but when used in addition it can be helpful. The ability to tell iCurrent about sources you like is also another way to control what news you see.

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