The Browser
Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

A Note To Our Newsletter Readers

News from The Browser:

1 We’ve added a new option for reading The Browser offline. If you have an account with Pocket (http://getpocket.com), you can choose to have all the articles recommended in The Browser Daily Newsletter sent automatically as full text to your Pocket queue. To activate this option, log in to The Browser website (http://thebrowser.com); click the “preferences” link at the top; then, on your Preferences page, under “automatic read-later services”, enable “auto-posting to Pocket”. If you don’t have an account with Pocket, do consider opening one. Everything about it is free and, in our experience, amazingly neat and useful.

2 We’ve redesigned our web site, at http://thebrowser.com. If you haven’t visited for a while, please do drop in and tell us what you think. While you are there, you might want to click through to the Culture and Tech supplements; and to FYI, the experimental page on which we review paywalled content.

3 If you want to comment on anything in or about The Browser, please do you use the Feedback button on the website (http://thebrowser.com/feedback/). By default, your comment will be seen by other subscribers. So it’s a good place to make points about the site that you think might be of interest to others; or to comment on the substance of articles that we’ve recommended; or to recommend articles that we might have missed.

The Browser Paywall: Some First Notes

We rely on Google Analytics to tell us how many readers we have, and what articles our readers click through to. We don’t seek or possess any data about the reading habits of individual readers; only the aggregates. So far, we haven’t tried to make any practical use of these analytics; but we’re wondering if they might help us to make The Browser better. So we’ve asked our friend Tony to consult with us on what our data might tell us. This is the first of his notes. — Robert

Tony writes:

THERE IS quite a surprising finding in a first view of the stats. As the graph shows, when the paywall was tightened in early September, from ten down to five free click-throughs, a whole lot of articles – dots on the graph – stopped being clicked through by anyone much (getting fewer than 100 views or so), while the other articles kept on much as before.

It might have been expected that each article might suffer a bit from the tightening, but actually, a small number took most of the hit. This can be seen in the second graph, which shows, for each week, the mean and 1 and 2 standard deviations from it for readership. The spread downwards increases after September, but the upper distribution hardly moves – popular articles are just as popular under a tightened paywall.

I have tried to see if I can extract any information about the less popular articles. In summary – the paywall cut average views by about 200, but as we’ve seen, this was concentrated in a subset of articles that took bigger hits; “arts” articles tend to do 200 views worse than average; media, society and world are also poor performers. After the introduction of the paywall, energy, society and politics have been above average performers, while science, people and media have done badly. Society is the odd case, it seems, here, since it has changed from being below average to being above average after the tightening of the paywall. This might be a statistical anomaly (though it is, in good old Fisherian terms, significant); or it might be that the composition of readers has changed because of the tightening.

I’ve included the bottom 20 performers post-paywall in case you can think of some commonality that might be tested. It strikes me that the paywall may have eliminated a particular subset of readers with shared tastes. The list seems unusually “techie”. That would go with Science having turned into a poor performer post paywall. So … maybe that was traffic via the RSS feed, when the full RSS went paid?

As an analysis of paywalls, it is already an encouraging start.

There is much more to be done with all this data, and I suspect that the article-level material will be very rich. The category information is particularly valuable because it provides a fixed point within which variation can be explained. The extraction of unusual words from the title and standfirst could do the same sort of thing. As could some tag-extraction tools like openCalais. We might try it out to see if it adds useful category data. In any case, we should tag posts generously.

Looking at simple frequency distributions of authors and publications shows, in the top echelon of each, some somewhat unsurprising results. Aeon is perhaps the most surprising, being up there with much more established publications. Matter performs even more strongly, but it is hard for the moment to say whether it should be treated as a publication or a platform.

Maybe we could produce 2 rankings, by date of establishment of the publication. Say, pre and post 2001. That would allow us to bring to the surface more smaller publications. I have tried some regressions to establish the value of a publication to click-throughs but have yet to get anything significant out – again with the exception of Aeon and Matter, which had an above average effect. I’ll try something with top authors to see if I find an effect. But I suspect I’ll have to do something more involved with individual-level data to extract this sort of information.

I am still groping around rather with the data and how to think about it. For example, I think that my next attempt ought to be to consider that each day, the articles published on that day are in a competition for attention. That will essentially give me many separate markets over which to try to isolate the effects of the different variables, and should yield much more information. At the moment, my best R squared is 17%, implying that there is still over 80% of the variation in the data that I am not capturing!

Most frequently recommended publications post paywall*

*paywall was introduced on March 28th 2013

Titles of the poorest performers post paywall

Embracing the void
Everyone on The Couch
Review: Autobiography, By Morrisey
The Culture That Gave Birth To The Personal Computer
Ukraine, Russia and Europe
George Orwell: Animal Farm
Kennedy and After
The Plum in the Golden Vase
David Eggers: The Circle
If This Toaster Could Talk
Yahoo’s Geek Goddess
Cli-Fi: Birth Of A Genre
A Time Of Hugs And Kisses: XOXO 2013
Obituary: Hiroshi Yamauchi, President Of Nintendo
How Britain Exported Next-Generation Surveillance
Facebook Must Win The Grown-Up Vote
Mystery Man
When Condé Nast Was A Force For Good
Tor Is Less Anonymous Than You Think
Smacko, Redux

NOTES

1. it doesn’t help, readership-wise, to be in the top 10 most referred to publications. ie, once an article has been through the Broswer selection process, it doesn’t matter if it came from the New Yorker or from myhomespunblog – that’s a rather good testament to the power of the editorial selection on the Browser, I think – it is an equalising force.

2. there is a small but significant effect of word length – an additional 1000 words gets you 9 more views. I presume that this is the result of some hidden variable rather than readers actually responding to word length. But it is nice to know that there is a small bias towards lengthier writing!

A Golden Age For Paid Content

It’s coming, if publishers can get three things right.

Readers will pay for content online so long as three conditions are met:

1 The content is worth paying for.
2 The price is low.
3 The transaction is easy.

There are some trade-offs within those criteria. If you have an overwhelming need for a particular channel of content — the Financial Times, say, or The Economist — then you will accept a relatively high price, and quite a lot of friction in the process of subscribing.

But for paid content to be the rule rather than the exception, publishers need to deliver on all three criteria at once.

Here’s how it can happen.

There’s no particular problem or mystery associated with providing content worth paying for. Publishers do it all the time. What’s amazing is how much good writing is currently available for free. For example, I’d certainly pay to read the NYR Blog, provided that the price was right and the transaction was easy.

Getting to the right price is more of an issue. Publishers think in terms of one-to-many relations with their readers, and price accordingly; but readers want a one-to-many relationship with publishers. Each publisher wants to sell one subscription to every reader for $60 a year; but each reader would much rather buy ten subscriptions to ten publications for $6 a year each.

The customer is always right. With much lower prices and much bigger volumes, everyone would be better off.

Frictionless purchasing is getting closer, but it’s not evenly distributed.

You have it once you get inside the closed systems of the Kindle and the iTunes store — and the effect of it is clear and liberating. You sample more, you buy more. To return to the case of the NYR Blog, I’m 90% sure I’d pay $1 a month to read that content, even if I had to go through PayPal to do so. But I’m 100% sure I’d pay $1 a month to read it if I was buying with a single click on my Kindle, and 90% sure I’d pay $2.

But how to make frictionless transactions for individual pieces of content outside the closed systems? We need the internet equivalent of a Metro Card (in London: an Oyster Card), which is to say, a pass that the reader can preload with so many prepaid page views — say 100 page views for $10 — and then use to access individual pieces of paid content on any participating publisher’s website.

When we can meet all three criteria — quality content, low pricing, frictionless purchasing — we can do for paid content what app stores have done for software. Remember when software in a box used to cost $100, and you might buy a couple of things a year that you really needed? Now it costs $1 and you buy it on impulse.

We’re going to get there, even if the prepaid pass takes — I would guess — another year or two to arrive and scale. For the past five years or so we’ve been in a golden age of free content. Now we’re moving into a golden age of paid content, and that’s going to be even better.

+++++++++++++
(first published in medium.com, 24th July 2013)

Adding An Icon To An Android Phone

Ondrej Cabejsek was kind enough to provide this note of his method for adding an icon for The Browser to the home screen of his Android phone:

i) Native Android browser (“Internet”): press Menu, select Add to, select Home screen

ii) Chrome: press Menu, select “Star” button on top of the tab which will take you to “Edit Bookmark” and there you select “In” in which you further select “Mobile Bookmarks” and click Save. Now you’re back on the The Browser page. Press Menu again, select Bookmarks (Mobile Bookmarks if necessary) and you’ll see The Browser icon. Hold it until a drop down menu appears and select “Add to home screen”

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