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 (, 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 (; 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 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 ( 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


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, 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”

Save To Kindle Via Readability

First, you need to have an account with Readability, which is free, and a useful resource in any case. Get one at … then

1 Log on to

2 From the drop down menu called “Your Account” at the right of the search bar, choose “Manage Your Kindle”

3 On the “Manage Your Kindle” page, choose “Personal Document Settings” in the navigation bar at the left.

4 On the “Personal Document Settings” page, you will see a section called “send-to-Kindle email settings”

5 Make a note of the email address of your Kindle

6 Further down this same page, you will see a section called “Approved Personal Document Email List”

7 At the bottom of this section there is link to “add a new approved email address”

8 Click on this link, and add

9 Log out of

10 Go to

11 You have already completed the first step on the Readability checklist. What you need to do here is complete the second step: give Readability the email address of your Kindle (the one that you noted down while you were at And do be sure to choose the right domain name from the drop-down menu — or com

That’s it. It’s a bore, but you only have to do it once. After that, you can send to Kindle direct from The Browser. Hurrah!

Changes At The Browser

Letter To Members, March 18th 2013

Dear Member of The Browser,

First, my thanks to the many correspondents who wrote in response to my last letter, to share their likes and dislikes about The Browser, and to offer suggestions for future development.

I began by replying to each letter, but soon the volume overwhelmed me, for which I apologise. I was moved to discover how much affection The Browser commands , and sorry to learn about the technical problems which have been an irritation to many.

This will be quite a long email, so let me state first the headline points, for members who don’t want all the detail:

1) We have redesigned The Browser website so that it works equally well on desktops, laptops, tablets and phones. This new design will make its debut on March 28th. There will be no change in our content: The Browser will continue to offer daily links to the best recent articles, a quotation of the day and a video of the day, exactly as the present site does.

2) We will be shutting down our iOS and Android apps on March 28th. We have already disabled the downloading of these apps. I am sorry for the disruption that this will cause to members who use the apps regularly. But we can’t maintain and support the apps as we should, and the volume of technical complaints has been growing. Our new site will offer a browsing experience on mobile devices at least as good as that offered previously by the apps.

3) The new design will allow members to save articles of interest with one click to any of the three big read-later services — Readability, Instapaper, and Pocket. These dedicated services have many advantages over The Browser Reading List, which will be discontinued along with the apps.

4) With the launch of the new design, we are moving to a new business model. Members will continue to have unlimited free use of the site. Non-members will be able to click on up to ten links each month for free. Beyond that, they will be asked to pay a membership fee of $12/year. (This is more of a nudge than a paywall. A visitor who wants to see what we recommend, but doesn’t want to support us, can copy and paste our headlines into Google.)

5) If you would prefer to cancel your old membership and claim a refund of the unexpired portion of your subscription, that’s perfectly fair. Please email me,, with “refund” in the subject line, and say whether you’d prefer cash by PayPal, or an Amazon gift voucher. (Those are the only two ways we can think of that don’t incur disproportionate charges. If you have a better way, please do say.)

6) You don’t have to decide now. Please give the new site a chance, see how it works on your tablet or phone — and if you aren’t satisfied, then I’ll refund you at the drop of an email.

* * * *

Those are the main points. But please do stay with me if you’d like some more detail.

A lot of what we are doing here is a rationalising of The Browser after the parting of ways with Five Books at New Year. Five Books now has a temporary site at, to which new interviews are again being added after a six-month hiatus. I’ve seen some of the artwork for the site as it will be in the future, and it will be gorgeous.

The Browser, more than ever, has the virtues of simplicity: five or six links a day, a quotation and a video. The new web site will be plain and elegant. It uses a responsive design, meaning that the layout adjusts automatically to any screen size — from a big desktop monitor down to a mobile phone.

You will be able to put an icon for the new site on to the home screen of your tablet and phone, so that the site loads as easily as a native app would.

The decision to close down the apps was a painful one. They were expensive to build, and they have given some readers great pleasure. But by the same token, they were expensive to maintain, and I was receiving a high and rising volume of complaints from readers frustrated by failures in the login procedure and the refreshing of content. On balance, I fear, they were giving as much pain as pleasure.

I apologise particularly to readers who made frequent use of the Reading List function, which was a central feature of the apps. But if you try out Readability, or Instapaper, or Pocket, you will find that they do the same job much better.

Readability, Instapaper and Pocket are all free. All allow you to save pieces from anywhere on the Internet to read later, on a computer, a mobile device, or a Kindle. For new users, probably the friendliest of the three services is Readability — See how you like it. Possibly you may decide that you prefer Instapaper ( or Pocket (

Even if you are upset by the loss of the apps, I hope that you will try our new site — and I hope you will find it in every way an improvement over the old one.

There is a new business model, but one that will restrict only non-members. Anybody will be able to visit The Browser and see what we are recommending. Non-members will be able to click on up to ten links a month for free; but after that, they will be asked to pay a membership fee of $12/year. Members will log in to the site with an email address only; we are doing away with passwords, as bothersome and unnecessary. (We will not be holding any account information on the site. Nothing is at risk.)

That’s probably enough for the moment. Please do let me know how all this strikes you, and I will do my best to add and clarify where I can.

Thank you for supporting The Browser.

With best wishes

Robert Cottrell

My Life As A Screen Slave

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Financial Times, published there, as “Net Wisdom”, on February 15th 2013, reflecting on my work as experiences as editor of The Browser:

FOR MUCH of my adult life I was a diligent producer of daily and weekly journalism. In recent years I have become a gargantuan consumer of it. It is a privilege to earn one’s living by writing but, as I discovered, it is also a privilege, and a less stressful one, to earn one’s living by reading.

I read all day. Were it not for the demands of sleep and family life, I would read all night. My aim is to find all the writing worth reading on the internet, and to recommend the five or six best pieces each day on my website, the Browser. I pass over in silence here the Browser’s many virtues. My purpose here is to share with you four lessons I have learnt in five years’ drinking from the fire hose.

My first contention: this is a great time to be a reader. The amount of good writing freely available online far exceeds what even the most dedicated consumer might have hoped to encounter a generation ago within the limits of printed media.

I don’t pretend that everything online is great writing. Let me go further: only 1 per cent is of value to the intelligent general reader, by which I mean the demographic that, in the mainstream media world, might look to the Economistthe Financial TimesForeign Affairs or the Atlantic for information. Another 4 per cent of the internet counts as entertaining rubbish. The remaining 95 per cent has no redeeming features. But even the 1 per cent of writing by and for the elite is an embarrassment of riches, a horn of plenty, a garden of delights.

Each day I seek my six pieces with these criteria in mind: would I go out of my way to recommend this piece to one of my own friends? Will it inform and delight the intelligent general reader? Will it still be worth reading a month or a year from now?

I apply those rules, and I am almost always surprised and delighted myself by the stuff I bring back, all for free. Today, for example – I am writing this on February 7 – my final cut includes:

● an essay by the musician David Byrne, on his own blog, about civil disobedience and the case of Aaron Swartz, the internet prodigy who committed suicide under threat of prosecution.

● a scholarly book review in the online edition of Dissent magazine, by Steven Randy Waldman, about the history of financial risk, and the tensions between risk and personal freedom.

● a commentary for the New Republic by Jeffrey Rosen, professor of law at George Washington University, on why the Obama administration’s guidelines for assassinating US citizens abroad are unconstitutional.

These are the best, the top drawer, the keepers. I know when I have found such a piece, because I cannot stop reading until the end.

As such, they are relatively rare. Where the internet excels is in serving up plentiful writing that sits, you might say, one level down: at the level of very good daily journalism, whether on subjects of immediate interest for a general audience or more esoteric subjects for a specialised audience. I see scores of pieces each day that are plainly written, strongly argued and highly informative.

Where is it coming from? Some of it comes from professional journalists, writing for the websites of established publications or on their own blogs. But much of it – the great new addition to our writing and reading culture – comes from professionals in other fields who find the time, the motivation and the opportunity to write for anyone who cares to read. I am sorry that the internet gifted this practice with such an ugly name, “blogging”, but it is too late to change that now.

As a gross generalisation, academics make excellent bloggers, within and beyond their specialist fields. So, too, do aid workers, lawyers, musicians, doctors, economists, poets, financiers, engineers, publishers and computer scientists. They blog for pleasure; they blog for visibility within their field; they blog to raise their value and build their markets as authors and public speakers; they blog because their peers do.

Businessmen and politicians make the worst bloggers because they do not like to tell what they know, and telling what you know is the essence of blogging well. They also fear to be wrong; and, as Felix Salmon, Reuters’ finance blogger, insists and sometimes demonstrates: “If you are never wrong, you are never interesting”.

To read the blog of a political scientist, or an anthropologist, or a lawyer, or an information technologist, is the next best thing to reading their mind; better, in some ways, since what they have to say emerges in considered form. These are the experts who, a couple of decades ago, would have functioned as sources for newspaper journalists. Their opinions would emerge often mangled and simplified, always truncated, in articles over which they had no final control.

Now we can read them directly, and discover what they actually think and say. We can know, for example, what lawyers are saying about a new appointment to the Supreme Court; what political scientists expect from an election; how computer scientists evaluate Apple’s updated operating system; what economists expect from a new government policy. The general reader has access to expertise that was easily available, a decade ago, only to the insider or the specialist.

Here are some elite blogs for your reading diet, if you don’t have them bookmarked already. For American legal commentary, I recommend the Volokh Conspiracy. For political science, the Monkey Cage. For economics, Marginal Revolution. For computing, Asymco. For literature, the Millions. Treat these as starting points: most blogs feature a shortlist of other recommended blogs in the same field, providing stepping stones with which to explore further.

My second contention as a professional reader is one that may seem self-evident in the world of blogging but also holds good across the whole universe of online writing and publishing: the writer is everything. The corollary of this also holds good: the publisher (with a few exceptions) is nothing.

After thousands of diligent appraisals, I can confidently sign off on this excessively simple truth: good writers write good pieces, regardless of subject and regardless of publication. Mediocre writers write mediocre pieces. And nothing at all can rescue a bad writer.

A simple assertion, but put it in context and it becomes more complex and interesting. Think back to the days when print media ruled. Your basic unit of consumption was not the article, nor the writer, but the publication. You bought the publication in the hope or expectation that it would contain good writing. The publisher was the guarantor of quality.

Professional writers still see value in having publishers online, not so much as guarantors of quality, but because publishers pay for writing – or, increasingly, if they do not pay for it, they do at least publish it in a place where it will get read.

Readers, on the other hand, have less of a need for publishers. One striking trend I have noticed in the past five years is the way in which individual articles uncouple themselves from the places where they are first published, to lead their own lives across the internet, passed from hand to hand between readers.

This is due, in large part, to the rise of social media – primarily Facebook and Twitter. Five years ago, you needed to visit a publisher’s website to see what was new there. Now, you hear about a particular article through Twitter or Facebook; a friend will share the link; you may visit the page directly but more probably you will save the link to your Instapaper or your Readability account, or mark it for reading later in your Flipboard feed, or on your Kindle or other reading device, and you will enjoy the piece later, probably offline. The article is what matters to the reader; the place of original publication may not even be noticed.

Indeed, from a reader’s point of view, many online publishers subtract value. Let us say you have a writer who wants a reader; and a reader who wants a writer. Perfect. But if there is a publisher involved, his instincts will probably be to fill the space between reader and writer with banner advertisements, the object of which is to distract the reader from reading.

There are exceptions. As a reader I applaud, in no particular order, the New Yorkerthe New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books, and McSweeney’s. They and others like them take seriously the job of publishing online. They care about building sites and apps that make readers want to read, and writers want to write. They show intelligence, good taste, and restraint. Long may they prosper.

That said, it seems to me almost inevitable that a new business model for reading and writing online will prevail in the future, which consists of readers rewarding directly the writers they admire. Almost inevitable, because this is by far the most efficient economic arrangement for both parties, and there are no longer any significant technological obstacles to its general adoption.

That also seems to be the view of Andrew Sullivan, the English-born American-based journalist who made his name in the 1990s as editor of the New Republic, before founding the Daily Dish, a wide-ranging political blog, in 2000. It now attracts about 1.8m unique visitors a month.

After years of successive partnerships with Time magazine, the Atlantic, and the Daily Beast, Sullivan decided this year to take the Dish independent, saying he wanted “to create a place where readers – and readers alone – sustain the site”. Subscriptions are priced at $19.99 a year: during January alone, Sullivan raised $511,000 for the new venture.

Lesser blogs may not be able to raise money on Sullivan’s scale but nor may they need to do so. The important lesson of the Dish experiment so far is that, contrary to received wisdom, internet users are willing to pay for content but that loyalty and affection towards the particular writer or brand probably have to be a big part of the transaction.

And so to my third contention: we overvalue new writing, almost absurdly so, and we undervalue older writing. I feel this market failure keenly each day when I recommend a fine piece of writing that deserves to be read for years to come and yet will have at most two days in the sun.

You never hear anybody say, “I’m not going to listen to that record because it was released last year,” or, “I’m not going to watch that film because it came out last month.” Why are we so much less interested in journalism that’s a month or a year old?

The answer is that we have been on the receiving end of decades of salesmanship from the newspaper industry, telling us that today’s newspaper is essential but yesterday’s newspaper is worthless.

That distinction has been increasingly bogus since newspapers lost their news-breaking role to faster media 50 years ago, and began filling their pages with more and more timeless writing.

While consumers had to rely on print media, the distinction between old and new could be sustained by availability: today’s newspaper was everywhere, yesterday’s newspaper was nowhere, except perhaps in the cat litter.

Online, that distinction disappears – or it should. You can call up a year-old piece as easily as you can call up a day-old piece. And yet we hardly ever do so, because we are so hardly ever prompted to do so. Which condemns tens if not hundreds of thousands of perfectly serviceable articles to sleep in writers’ and publishers’ archives, written off, never to be seen again.

Why do even big publishing groups with the resources to do so (the New Yorker is an honourable exception) make so little attempt to organise, prioritise and monetise their archives?

The best explanation I can suggest comes from an analogy given to me by George Brock, a former managing editor of The Times, who is now professor of journalism at City University in London. Think of a newspaper or magazine as a mountain of data, he says, to which a thin new layer of topsoil gets added each day or each week. Everybody sees the new soil. But what’s underneath gets covered up and forgotten. Even the people who own the mountain don’t know what’s in the lower layers.

They might try to find out but that demands a whole new set of tools. And, besides, they are too busy adding the new layer of topsoil each day.

I suspect that the wisest new hire for any long-established newspaper or magazine would be a smart, disruptive archive editor. Why just sit on a mountain of classic content, when you could be digging into it and finding buried treasure?

My fourth contention is that the internet is a force for brevity. Hard to believe, I know. You think of it as a place where people witter on for ever.

But when you’re writing online, you don’t have to fill an expected space or length, as you do when you write for a print publication. When you have a fixed space to fill, the temptation is to provide the minimal decent amount of original work needed, wrapped up in the maximum tolerable amount of verbiage. When you have no particular space to fill, there’s no marginal utility to be derived from going on any longer than you need to.

It helps, too, that when you’re writing online, there’s no need to introduce and source every person, place and fact you mention, and no need to fill in the backstory for those new to the subject. You can link out to the source document or the related story – or just assume your reader knows how to use Google and Wikipedia.

This trend towards brevity is even more marked when it comes to books. Online publishing has spawned a new category of short books, 10,000 to 30,000 words long – Kindle Singles, Penguin Shorts, Atavist Originals and others – that give writers the space in which to turn round a big idea or a big story quickly and nimbly. Very often, 10,000 to 30,000 words is all a big idea needs, when you don’t need to bulk it out with anecdotes to justify the price of a hardback book or to make sure it still has some value when it finally gets printed in a year. You can keep your thesis lean and topical. One of the most discussed popular economics books of the past two years, The Great Stagnation, by Tyler Cowen, was written as a 15,000-word ebook.

I could go on. But, speaking of brevity, here you will have to excuse me. I have 775 unread items from today in my RSS feed, and about six hours of Twitter to spool back through. Somebody has to do it, and I’m glad it’s me.

Robert Cottrell is editor of the Browser,

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