When I was a kid, I used to get lost in National Geographic each month. My family had a collection going back many years, and for quite a while I maintained a subscription to the magazine so I could devour each new issue as it arrived.
Later, it was joined by Wired, Popular Science, and eventually some photography and travel publications too.
As I got older and content migrated to the vast plains of the internet, my magazine reading languished and eventually died off entirely, replaced by the dopamine-dispensary of punchy, short-form writing the likes of which has been popularized by blogs and online publications. But something was lost along the way—something important: staying power.
While the internet’s abundance of opinion pieces, link blogs, and personal essays remains an endless well of reading material, I felt myself missing the more substantive writing I used to find in my favourite magazines. True journalism is writing honed by a process of research, thinking, writing, and editing. It benefits from the multi-mind discipline of teamwork. Its output tends to be fact-checked, screened for biases, and held to a higher standard than most self-published material on the web.
It’s nourishing, enriching reading that lingers, inspires, and has impact.
That isn’t to say that you can’t find this kind of writing on the internet, but the internet as a medium isn’t optimized for it. Our ad-driven monetization models have backed us into a corner where clickbait is more profitable and shareable than the kind of writing that has substance beyond its headline.
The Promise of Apple News+
When Apple News+ showed up, it offered access to basically all of my old magazine favourites — and plenty of new ones — all for less than what I would pay for just a couple of those subscriptions. It didn’t take much convincing for me to hop onto the trial.
Unfortunately, it’s a mediocre app, a bad deal for publishers, and of questionable business value to Apple given its poor traction so far. And yet…as someone who enjoys magazines, it turns out it’s difficult to leave behind.
As part of a larger purge of subscriptions, I decided to deactivate my News+ sub. I didn’t use it regularly and figured I wouldn’t miss it, so I cancelled, rejoicing in the knowledge that I was shutting down one of the more expensive monthly content subscriptions I had going.
I did not expect to be sheepishly hitting the renew button mere days later, but the content pulled me back in.
Sitting down to read and pay attention to the kind of writing in these magazines can be challenging. I found myself going weeks without opening the app, only to then sit down and spend an hour or two catching up on the issues that had accumulated.
For some reason, these twice-a-month reading binges felt insufficient. I’m not sure why, now that I think about it, but I became convinced that I wasn’t using the service enough to justify keeping it active.
I cancelled the subscription at the beginning of December, about a month before it was scheduled to auto-renew for another month. The holidays are busy, so I was feeling pretty good about my decision. At least until this week when I found myself craving some supplementary non-fiction reading that wasn’t just blogs, forum posts, and other internet miscellany. The pang of desire I felt for the comfort of my magazines was so strong that I couldn’t resist renewing my subscription again, just four days after it had expired.
Only a few of my friends subscribed to Apple News+, and of the ones who did I don’t know if any of them kept it beyond the trial. Maybe they weren’t big magazine people, or it made more sense for them to subscribe independently to the one or two magazines they really love. Or they simply don’t crave the kind of writing that those publications offer; perhaps they have better online sources of reading material than I do, or they have different habits altogether.
Paying for Content
I worry about the poor uptake because I wonder where News+ went wrong.
Does its relative failure so far indicate a lack of interest in this kind of content? Or is it an example of how a mediocre launch experience, marred by a poor app, can totally derail an otherwise compelling offering?
The modern content landscape faces a difficult challenge. We’ve cultivated a system of paying for content with our privacy, but now that the public is finally waking up to the invasive monster we’ve created this way, we’re left facing the alternative. We have to pay for content with money like we used to, except we’re now saddled with a dysfunctional sense of entitlement about the value of content: we believe all of it should be freely accessible.
This is proving unsustainable, with many strong publications buckling under the pressure of maintaining their high standards while struggling to make ends meet. Journalistic integrity and content quality are frequent victims of this conflict.
In the end, I consider Apple News+ worthy of support as an attempt to bridge the gap between the convenience of an aggregated content stream and the quality of paid journalism. It’s imperfect, and in need of more care and attention from Apple, but it’s a step in the right direction. My hope is that by paying for it, I can do my small part to support efforts like this and slowly turn the tide toward healthier models for publishing.
I don’t really care whether it’s Apple News+ or Blendle or Medium (all of which I pay for) that wins out, I just care that it’s not advertising.