Reading more, paying less

My reading habits have been changing and it’s worrying me. Don’t worry, I haven’t started reading the Daily Mail or anything. On the contrary, I’ve been reading loads of great journalism recently (The Vitamin Myth: why we think we need supplements and The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Food, to mention but two articles). The thing is, I haven’t paid for any of it and that makes me wonder how such journalism can continue to exist in future.

Storability, Readability

Readability is a cross-platform app that does two things really well: it reformats articles on websites to make them easier to read on whatever screen you’re using and it stores articles in your own personal reading list for you to read later, even when you’re offline. If I spot something I want to read later I just click a little button on my browser (or share it to Readability on the smartphone). It adds it to my reading list, strips out most or all of the images and serves up the text in an easily readable layout.

Before having this app, if I came across an interesting looking article but didn’t have time to read it right away it was a case of bookmarking it (using the excellent Xmarks) and going back to it later. Readability has made it much easier which also means that I’ve started seeking out good sources of new articles.

Finding the good stuff

I’m referring here primarily to longer pieces that take 15 to 30 minutes to read, or maybe even a little longer. Sources would include, for example, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Rolling Stone, feature articles in quality Sunday newspapers, etc., or even Readability’s own website. The subject matter could be politics, science, the arts, history – just about anything.

Sometimes I’ll visit a few of the sites mentioned above and bookmark some recent articles. I’ll also come across things via reddit or kottke.org. But the most useful source is a site called Longreads that aggregates together the best new articles over 1,500 words each week. Their weekly mailout usually throws up a handful of articles that end up on my reading list.

Who pays?

We once had a subscription to The New Yorker (and would have renewed after the gift expired if it hadn’t been for the fact that we struggled to find time to keep up with the weekly issues) and used to buy a lot of newspapers, particularly at the weekend. Now I’m using a free app that strips out the advertising to read the same quality journalism for free. It’s not sustainable.

I’ve just learned that I can become a member of Longreads, to contribute towards the upkeep and development of the service (and intend to do that), but it’s not clear whether any of that money supports the journalists and publications. I’ve seen that some publishers use Longreads to promote books by allowing them to publish an extract, but that doesn’t address the fundamental problem.

We stopped buying CDs more than five years ago, instead downloading our music. But we still pay for it all, so the artists are still getting some remuneration (at least from those of us that do still pay for music). With newspaper and magazine sales on a downward slide and the failure so far of paywalls as a viable model, what will enable quality journalism to continue to exist?

Gateway drug

One little personal postscript to all of the above is that I find I’m reading more and more on my smartphone, which naturally eats into the time I spend with an old-fashioned book in my hands. I’ve resisted the jump to an e-reader until now, claiming that I like the feel of a book in my hands, don’t want to read from a screen, want to be able to pass books on to others, etc. But I can see that I’m not that far from making the leap and joining many, many book-loving friends that now swear by their Kindle.

So it seems the combo of Readability and Longreads is pulling me inexorably to the world of the e-reader, which means our bookshelves might go the way of our CD racks before them. It makes me a little bit sad, but I guess it’s not worth getting too worried about. On the other hand, I’ll be interested to see what business models rise from the rubble when the publishing industry follows in the footsteps of the record industry. It’s all in flux for now.