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Dec. 11, 2009, 10:36 a.m.

E&P and the emotional commitment of a subscription

I heard the news about Editor & Publisher closing as I hear many things these days — through Twitter. Patrick Thornton (jiconoclast) tweeted: “Does anything better symbolize the state of print media right now than the closure of E&P? Yes things are very bad.” At first, I hoped his tweet didn’t mean what I knew it meant. But a quick search of Twitter yielded proof. Yes, E&P had told its staff Thursday that it was shutting down operations.

This shook me even more than when Gourmet announced its closure a while back. (I found out about that on Twitter, too.)

I read E&P almost religiously in my early years as a journalist, devouring it the moment it arrived in my mailbox. The magazine had a bright purple cover back then. As time went on, I didn’t renew my subscription. I’m not sure why.

I enjoyed E&P’s articles. I appreciated the reporting. In fact, in the last few years, its web site became one of regular online haunts to find out what’s going on in the news business. Sometimes, I’d head to the E&P web page myself, but more often I’d be drawn there by a well-worded tweet or a blog post from someone whose opinion I valued.

Now, I have no information about why E&P shut down, but I’d assume lack of ad revenues or subscriptions had something to do with it. So perhaps I was part of the problem. Or at least me and the many others like me who appreciated E&P’s content but didn’t buy it. Or maybe how I read E&P was just a sign of the times, part of this changing way we consume the news, in small bits throughout the day triggered by smart people we follow online.

That got me thinking. Why didn’t I pay for E&P while it was still here? Why didn’t I subscribe? Would I have subscribed online if they offered it?

The truth is, for me, not subscribing — either in print or online — has little to do with money. It’s about commitment. And I think that’s the problem many news organizations are facing as they try to bring their products online.

In the old days, I paid for E&P because if I didn’t, I’d have no idea what was going on in the industry. I wasn’t paying for news; I was paying for the chance to be in the know in my field.

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. Why? Because the publication has become less important than the news itself. I want to be free to surf, reading dozens of different newspapers, blogs or magazines that I may visit just once or twice. I enjoy the synchronicity of happening upon a publication I have never heard of and will probably never visit again.

Yes, I realize that even if I subscribe to one publication, I can still read others. But the act of subscribing is picking one over the others. If you’re a runner, you have a choice of two major magazines: Runner’s World or Running Times. By picking one, you’re choosing not to pick the other. You might glance at the other once in a while, but you probably don’t read them both cover to cover.

I think many of us feel that if we pay for a publication, we expect it to become one of our primary news sources — not just one of dozens of places where we get news. I may feel a bit cheated if I end up getting more of my news elsewhere. I may feel cheated if I subscribe but forget to check the site every day, going instead only when a Facebook friend sends me a link.

In a sense, it’s the dilemma with the makings of a country song: If I subscribe, I feel like I have to dance with the one who brung me — when I really want to play the field.

So maybe at some level I didn’t subscribe to E&P in print because I knew if I headed online, I’d get lots of E&P-like news. Sure, some of it would start with E&P’s reporting, with commentary added by bloggers. Some of it would be from other sources. I was interested in getting as much news and information as I could about the journalism industry. I wasn’t interested in one particular brand.

So what is the answer to that? To me it always comes back to the question: What are you really paying for? I’d gladly pay for online information, a small monthly fee like I pay for my television viewing, a subscription to the whole web. What I don’t want to do is pay for one brand, one publication. I want to be free to follow the news.

A good example of what I mean is Jim Romenesko’s blog at Poynter Online. I read it almost every day. It’s in my RSS reader — but I don’t usually get to it from there. I don’t need to. I remember to check it. I remember to check it because I won’t just find E&P stories there — as great as they were — but I’ll find a whole lot more. It’s like the good ol’ days, when E&P was selling me the chance to be in the know in my field. And that, honestly, I would pay for.

POSTED     Dec. 11, 2009, 10:36 a.m.
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