Subscription Friction: The journalism battles; scientific articles and high cost of access

Internet is fundamentally broken now. I have been online for a significant proportion of my life and have a clear idea about how technology has evolved. The new trend of subscriptions seems to have taken over the net. For some, it provides their livelihood. I have known a couple of individuals (in the past two years) who continue to deliver value through a subscription model. But first, consider the quote below.

I suspect that a high proportion of my readers know this is true just from the feeling in their gut, but as an exercise in rhetoric let me offer some of the reasons why.

  • Subscription fatigue is setting in. I’ll make a spending decision, even a big one, quickly and without regrets when whatever it is feels like the right thing. But a subscription, another bill showing up on every credit-card statement… forever?
  • A very high proportion of the world’s curious-minded well-educated people subscribe to some subset of The Economist, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, and the New Yorker. Most of us feel we’re subscribed enough.
  • There’s a huge class of publications who’ll put out a handful of articles every year that I want to read, but not remotely enough to justify a subscription.
  • The offers are sleazy. Whenever I read an absurdly low-cost subscription offer, I know the number showing up my bill is going to be a lot higher pretty damn quick.
  • Obviously it’s not just journalism. What madness makes huge companies think that people will sign up for Netflix and Hulu and HBO and Amazon Video and Apple TV+ and Disney? I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few, and even more sure that more are on the way.
    via ongoing by Tim Bray · Subscription Friction

Subscription friction is not new. How many of you subscribe to journals? I won’t name the societies, but in this age of instant delivery, publishing thick papers is a waste. There is bound to be a vocal minority that’s going to bray about reading on paper, but digital tools have effectively replaced them (Luckily, that vocal minority is slowly dying). There are ongoing costs associated with the digital archives, but as the storage plummets, it would be instructive to hand it over to the specialists. However, as the publishing industry juggernaut continues to roll on, it is hard to define “prestige”. It boils down to legacy and then subsequently, incurred marketing costs to keep the brand propped up. My subscription fetched me a fancy published journal (and some bragging rights), but they were not sufficient enough to impress anyone (at least no one cared!)

Jokes apart, it is a real problem. Publishing involves several layers of people, and the revenues are entirely stressed out. People are accustomed to “free” because that’s how an advertisement funded model went by in the earlier era. The big tech (and the dystopian future) thrive on complete lack of understanding of privacy issues. The mitigation tools have also gone extremely complex (I use a combination of script and ad blocking, including tools to block browser fingerprinting).

Yet, I won’t hesitate to pay up for something that provides me value. For example, if I need specific journal articles, I get them anyway through bots. I “bypass” restrictions on heavily trafficked websites. Yet, I chose to pay for an exciting journalistic venture. Purely, because it brought out value to my reading and enhanced my perspective. I lost faith in it because gradually, it stopped providing value to my reading/intellect or time.

Here’s another exciting blurb:

Different publications have different audiences and they have different relationships with those audiences. Some have deep bonds of trust, others don’t. Historically (and increasingly today), publications sell subscriptions. They also sell ads which can command different rates depending the value advertisers attach to talking to different groups of people. If you have a strong brand and a key audience, a publication can command profitable advertising rates because they become a kind of gatekeeper for a given audience.

The problem, of course, is with the attention economy. How do you cut through the clutter? Primarily if your livelihood depends on it?

That’s the whole point. Everyone has digital tools to achieve it. Some are more successful (in terms of monetisation) than others, but you are keeping all your eggs in one basket. Any algorithmic change will demote your blog/webpage down the search results where it would be meaningless. (Therefore, the growth, has to be “organic”).

Here’s a surprisingly relevant post from the archives on micropayments (something that Brave browser is attempting to do by creating its own ad network):

Micropayment advocates mistakenly believe that efficient allocation of resources is the purpose of markets. Efficiency is a byproduct of market systems, not their goal. The reasons markets work are not because users have embraced efficiency but because markets are the best place to allow users to maximize their preferences, and very often their preferences are not for conservation of cheap resources.

Imagine you are moving and need to buy cardboard boxes. Now you could go and measure the height, width, and depth of every object in your house – every book, every fork, every shoe – and then create 3D models of how these objects could be most densely packed into cardboard boxes, and only then buy the actual boxes. This would allow you to use the minimum number of boxes.

But you don’t care about cardboard boxes, you care about moving, so spending time and effort to calculate the exact number of boxes conserves boxes but wastes time. Furthermore, you know that having one box too many is not nearly as bad as having one box too few, so you will be willing to guess how many boxes you will need, and then pad the number.

For low-cost items, in other words, you are willing to overpay for cheap resources, in order to have a system that maximizes other, more important, preferences. Micropayment systems, by contrast, typically treat cheap resources (content, cycles, disk) as precious commodities, while treating the user’s time as if were so abundant as to be free.

The author proposes a “Disneyland” model. Pay once and “all the rides are free”. However, the law of “diminishing marginal utility” kicks in. You can entertain yourself to some extent which gets diminished over a while. For a brief period, I used an interesting product called SetApp. I realised that the choices were overwhelming. How do I justify the cost of not using apps that are meaningless? One price for all you can use doesn’t work out in the long run. For the same reason, I got rid of Ulysses on Mac- a good product but offers no value for a subscription because writing is usually sporadic.

Can reading offer the same value?

Here’s something from the archives again:

A subscription is a way of bundling diverse materials together over a set period, in return for a set fee from the user. As the newspaper example demonstrates, aggregation and subscription can work together for the same bundle of assets.

Subscription is more than just aggregation in time. Money’s value is variable – $100 today is better than $100 a month from now. Furthermore, producers value predictability no less than consumers, so producers are often willing to trade lower subscription prices in return for lump sum payments and more predictable revenue stream.

Subscription also serves as a reputation management system. Because producer and consumer are more known to one another in a subscription arrangement than in one-off purchases, and because the consumer expects steady production from the producer, while the producer hopes for renewed subscriptions from the consumer, both sides have an incentive to live up to their part of the bargain, as a way of creating long-term value.

Can the subscription model work? I have no idea but here’s from the original link:

Well, I’m here to tell you that on the technology side, we have the tools we need to build this. You could spend a bunch of time devising an Internet Standard protocol for subscription services and wrangle it through the IETF or W3C or somewhere, and that’s not a terrible idea, but I’d probably want to build the software first. With an Amazon-style two-pizza team and modern cloud infrastructure I’d have it on the air in 2020, no problem.

Bootstrapping the business side would be tough because the publishing industry is led by people who not only are not focused on technology but suffer from unrealistic fantasies as to what it is and isn’t. It’d be dead easy for Amazon or Google to offer this as a service, but the publishing community would, rightly or wrongly, assume it to be another way to suck all the money out of the sector.

Similarly, can you find any merit in expensive subscriptions? What value do the journals provide on an ongoing basis? Do they have “practise changing papers” that would “radically” change the outcomes? It is interesting to note that surveys published in the “leading journals” often address the gap in theory and practise. It is difficult (if not impossible) to impact the behavioural change. For that, users have to see the value in the product.

Read more.  (Link to a PDF)