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July 20, 2011, 11 a.m.

Instapaper, Read It Later, Byliner: Platform founders on the pageview economics of time-shifted reading

A generation of tools make articles more readable by stripping away ads — but is it at the expense of publishers’ underlying economics?

When Byliner.com launched last month, there was plenty of enthusiasm about their new “Pandora of narrative non-fiction” from fans of long-form journalism. But Brooklyn writer Matt Langer added a note of skepticism to the conversation — one often heard when talking about the many new services that try to make web articles more readable.

In a post on his blog, he pointed out that the “Read at Source” button at the bottom of Byliner’s article previews often links to “the print version of the original source (also known as the ‘ad-free version’ or the ‘revenue-free edition’ or the ‘making publishing an unsustainable industry version’),” and that the “Read It Later” button allows readers “to bypass the original source entirely and send the content directly to Read It Later.” Over Twitter, he clarified: It’s possible to save a story on Read It Later and then re-open the full web version, with ads. But readers also have the option of opening a text-only version of the story.

Together, Langer suggested, services like Byliner.com and Read It Later were offering readers a very elegant, convenient way of bypassing ads altogether.

I called Read It Later founder Nate Weiner and asked him whether readers were using this kind of bypass Langer described. On the traditional desktop-and-laptop web, Weiner said, they’re not: 95 percent of Read It Later web users open the original article page, ads included.

But that’s not true of the fast-growing number of mobile readers, Weiner said. Article source pages, and their ads, don’t read as well on a smartphone’s tiny screen. But text-only versions — which Read It Later provides — do. And this kind of ad-page mobile bypass is possible not only through Byliner, but also through other Twitter clients that allow users to save links directly to Read It Later and other newsreader apps.

Langer’s criticism of the Byliner/Read It Later integration actually points to a broader, and more familiar, problem. The audience for long-form journalism, as well as for other reporting, is expanding across platforms that many publishers haven’t figured out how to monetize. (“Monetize,” in this case, doesn’t even mean “create a long-term model of sustainable revenue for” — still a problem with the wider web. It just means “know how to sell ads on.”)

I talked with Weiner, Marco Arment of Instapaper , and Byliner’s John Tayman about this issue and the new pageview economics of digital publishing.

Ad-view vs. pretty-view

As he has before, Weiner compared the problem to the transformation of television, with Read It Later and its article-reader peers as “TiVo for the web.”

“When they created TiVo, they did not set out to make an ad stripper,” he said. “It was to build a better TV experience…We use Hulu to watch stuff on-demand all the time. We can basically consume that content however we want to.”

This has also meant that it’s become easier for television viewers to fast-forward through ads. “It doesn’t mean that TV advertising is over, that that it killed the industry,” Weiner said. “[But] the ads you created before don’t work in this new model.”

Weiner said that it’s a normal pattern: First comes a new platform, then — after a while — comes the way to monetize it. But this puts developers in a tricky position with regard to publishers. We could call it the problem of the ad-view versus the pretty-view.

“If you do something that’s really awesome for the users, that’s usually something that’s not good for the publishers,” said Instapaper creator Marco Arment. “There’s always going to be pressure, from the user base and from competitors, to evade more ads.”

Weiner was more optimistic on this point. “I don’t think the user demand is an ad-free page,” he said. “They just want to be able to have a better reading view, which is a mobile-formatted view.”

The extent to which developers reformat content — and the degree to which they steer readers away from publishers’ own pages — is a crucial marker of their status, legal and otherwise. Earlier this spring, a group of large news publishers (including the Associated Press, Gannett, Dow Jones, and others) sent a joint cease-and-desist letter to Zite, a personalized magazine app for the iPad, arguing that the way it was re-formatting and re-packaging both articles and photographs was “plainly unlawful” and that it “intentionally and pervasively infringes on our copyrights.”

“It’s a bummer that they did this, but we expected it,” Zite CEO Ali Davar told All Things D’s Kara Swisher at the time. Swisher reported that Davar planned to comply with the letter by serving up content in web mode, from the publications’ own websites, rather than reformatting them into “reading” mode. But he wasn’t happy about it. “We’re talking to publishers right now to find a win-win for them monetarily and to at the same time preserve the great user experience,” he said.

Obviously, that win-win is elusive, even for developers who have more cordial relationships with content producers. In his conversations with publishers, Weiner told me, none of them have attacked Read It Later as an inappropriate service, but they have raised a question: “How do we survive in your world?”

What’s the middle way?

In the long term, if services like Read It Later and Instapaper continue to be popular, publishers need to figure out how they can monetize their content across those different platforms.

But in the (potentially lengthy) meantime, developers are negotiating rocky terrain. There are many ways that reading platforms can either subvert or support publishers, and their degree of support is made plain every time there’s a choice between pulling text to a new platform or loading the publisher’s page and ads.

On Instapaper, for instance, users can browse a list of articles their friends have saved. The logical design would allow users to save an article directly from their friend’s list to theirs, without opening it. But that’s not how Instapaper works, Arment said. Instead, users have to open the original article page — and register an ad impression — before they can save the article to their own list.

“I get emails about that every day,” Arment said. Users want him to change the feature to make it easier for them. But, he said, “I don’t want to be stealing people’s pageviews and depriving them of revenue.”

John Tayman, the CEO of Byliner, is himself a journalist and author, and Byliner.com is a site designed to support nonfiction writing and nonfiction writers. (The degree to which Byliner’s future is tied up with author support is signaled by their hiring of Kevin Smokler, formerly the CEO of BookTour.com, an author service, as their vice president of marketing.) Conversations about this issue can easily become acrimonious — Kara Swisher’s article about Zite’s cease-and-desist letter was titled “When Media Giants Attack!,” while Langer has written before of “the whole thorny issue about Entitled People On The Internet who all purportedly Care Very Much About Reading but also Find Your Ads So Very Insulting And Simply Can’t Be Bothered By Them.” Tayman was clearly uncomfortable about being put on the “developers” side in a “publishers vs. developers” story. He emphasized that Byliner chose to partner with Read It Later in part because its default is to send users to the publishers’ original article pages — one important way of respecting publishers and their revenue needs.

As for the ad-lite print-versions linked to some of Byliner’s “Read At Source” buttons, Tayman said that there’s no standard policy at Byliner about which version of an article to use. (They record as many distinct URLs as they can for each article, he said.) “It’s on a case-by-case basis. We’re trying to give our readers the cleanest reading experience.”

And “we’ve heard from a lot of publications since we launched, all of them positively,” he noted.

While Byliner could make a policy of pointing users to publishers’ ad-iest pages by default, that pro-publisher approach would also create a less-clean reading experience for users. Which brings us back to the key tension: experience vs. economics. And that’s a tension that Read It Later’s founder, for his part, said it’s not fair to blame on developers. “The enemy,” Weiner said, “is not the innovators. The enemy is the idea of not doing anything, and thinking that change is not going to happen.”

POSTED     July 20, 2011, 11 a.m.
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