The Browser In 2020


involves: paywalls, Granta, Medium, Agnes Callard

My friend and colleague Jacob Silkstone, the Weekend Editor of The Browser, has been compiling our year-in-review issues which go out from Christmas Day to New Year's Eve, and also running some quick numbers on the pieces we have recommended throughout 2020. He reports:

In 2020, the Browser featured writing from 533 different publications.

The remarkable thing here is that almost every day of the year featured at least one publication unique to that day (on Christmas Eve, for example, we featured Bright Wall Dark Room for the first time all year).  

The majority of publications (344) cited were cited only once during the year.

The publications we recomended most often were:

1 New York Review Of Books (49 times)
2 Paris Review (37)
3= Aeon (35)
3= Guardian (35)
5 LitHub (23)
6 MIT Press Reader (21)

Granta was featured heavily in the first half of the year; Less Wrong in the second. Both make the top 10 of the full-year list.

I think the individual writer we've featured most frequently is Agnes Callard (8). Ed Simon has been featured 4 times.

We featured NYRB pieces almost every week until the start of November, and then stopped featuring them for the rest of the year. Similarly, we published 19 pieces from Granta, but barely any later than June. Anything to do with stricter paywalls at certain publications?

I can partially answer Jacob's last question. The New York Review Of Books redesigned its website and paywall in November. Under the old system, a few pieces from each issue of the Review were placed outside the hard paywall online; under the new system, as I understand it, visitors to the Review website have to create a free account to read anything much at all; I am not yet sure how the metering — the number of free-to-read pieces per visitor — works; and, consequently, with great regret, I have been hesitating to recommend Review pieces for fear that Browser subscribers will find it cumbersome or impossible to read them.    

As for Granta — everything they touch is wonderful, so the fact of their high ranking is not a surprise; the distribution across the year, however, is a surprise and a puzzle. I haven't noticed, still less reacted to, any overt changes in Granta's paywall; some pieces are free to read and some are not; I think it may be that free-to-read pieces early in the year were weighted more towards essays and memoirs; whereas free-to-read pieces later in the year were weighted more towards fiction and poetry, genres which in general feature much less frequently on The Browser.

I suspect Less Wrong would be placed even higher if I had attributed every piece I found there to the Less Wrong URL. In practice, where I saw that a Less Wrong post was cross-posted from a writer's own website, I would cite the writer's own URL, to encourage discovery.

My biggest frustration has been the Medium paywall, which pops up in all sorts of unexpected places, even on articles which the authors themselves have assured me are free to read. I'm in favour of paid content; good writing is worth good money. I'm delighted that publishers make so much fine writing available freely as a marketing strategy, enabling The Browser to exist in this flux as a sort of critic. But in Medium's case the paywall is operated by Medium, it prioritises the interests of Medium over those of the writers and publishers, and I doubt that it works very well for anybody at all — least of all for writers hoping to find readers, and readers hoping to find writers.  

Finally, I'm thrilled to see Agnes Callard topping our writers' list. I've admired her work since first encountering it via Tyler Cowen, whose conversation with Professor Callard was a marvel. I doubt she has ever said or written a dull word.

Professor Agnes Callard

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