The Problem With Paying To Read Things Later
Readability's bold experiment to pay publishers for articles saved by users failed. What went wrong with it.
Readability is one of a handful of "read later" services that make our lives easier, along with Pocket and Instapaper. I like them all very much, because I can read awesome stuff I don't have time to read during the day later that night (or whenever). These services, if you're not familiar with them, take a web page that you're looking at, pull the text and images out (often stripping the ads away) and save them directly to your phone or tablet or phablet for reading later, sans internet access (and clunky web layouts).
Something Readability does that the others don't, however, is charge an optional subscription fee that it says "directly support[s] the great writing you love," because "70% of your monthly contribution is earmarked for the writers and publishers you read with Readability." The examples states, "[i]f half of the stories you read in a given month come from The New York Review of Books, half of your earmarked funds will be allocated to The New York Review of Books."
If you are Joe Q. Subscriber, you probably assume that your money does indeed land in the coffers of The New York Review of Books (or Mad Magazine or whomever), per some pre-arranged agreement, since Readability is collecting money on their behalf, after all. That is not necessarily the case.
In a post announcing that Readability's shutting down the payment plan, Readability CEO Richard Ziade revealed that over 90 percent of the funds earmarked for publishers — nearly $150,000 — "has gone unclaimed." It's up to publishers to go to Readability, which has been telling users it's been collecting money on their behalf, and register with the service to claim their checks. Any money not claimed by publishers by July 15 is being given to nonprofits "that speak to the spirit of supporting reading and writing."
In the post laying out what went wrong with the payment model, Ziade lays the blame pretty squarely on publishers: For it to work, "a large group of publishers needed to accept that support." Why didn't you accept that support, publishers?
Out of the millions—yes, millions—of domains that flowed through Readability, just over 2,000 registered to claim their money. As a result, most of the money we collected—over 90%—has gone unclaimed.
Readability's idea, fundamentally, is a good one: readers paying publishers for the things they're reading. Theoretically, everybody makes money, and everybody's happier.
The problem, though, is in Readability anointing itself as the entity to collect this money — and presenting itself to readers as a designated entity to do so — without the permission of the people who it's collecting the money for. (There have been other problems with its posturing, too.) The opt-in/opt-out positioning presents a serious problem for publishers: There are a handful of major services now that republish their content as read later services. What if there were a hundred? Or hundreds? All demanding that publishers have to register with them to collect money. Death by a thousand registration forms.
And as Choire Sicha of The Awl says in a piece bluntly titled "Republishing is Theft," Readability is not a real revenue channel "except at great bulk (if you had three million readers via Readability, that'd be income, and great for writers). As it stands, it's a reduction-in-revenue channel."
(That said, The Awl is one of the 2,000 publishers who've registered with Readability. "Just to enjoy the experiment," Sicha told me via DM.)
A few thousand dollars from this service, five bucks from this one, fifty from another, a sustainable model it does not make. Dividing $150,000 by millions of domains does not result in lots of zeroes. Still, from a publisher's perspective, Sicha writes, "It's far more attractive than other options" in which services don't even try to pay publishers anything. "You get paid in Tweets, baby."
There isn't really an easy answer here. Publishers who go to these services to "opt-out" of allowing readers to use them look no better than the jerks at NBC who "don't get the internet" when they pull SNL clips from YouTube. Instapaper notes, in bold, that no major publishers have opted out of its service.
Besides, it'd be like plugging holes in the Hoover Dam with greasy fingers: These services aren't going away. The genie's out of the bottle. Readers love them. I love them. I can't imagine not using Instapaper or Pocket or Readability, the same way people who have DVRs can't imagine going back to watching television without them. I can read the stuff I want, when and where I want, and often articles are way more readable than they are on the sites I pull them from.
So how to make sure publishers get paid when readers use these services really is the only question worth answering. Do my subscriptions to the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine and Wired cover reading them in Instapaper? I think so. They might disagree. But I don't pay Slate (or The Awl) anything, and I throw their content in my read later apps almost every day. Is paying with a tweet or a Facebook post enough? I guess I could send them a check. Maybe you guys could give me a few dollars too. I'll make sure it gets to their door step.