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Highlights from Tom Standage’s Reddit AMA

redditFollowing in the footsteps of Barack Obama and music sensation Psy, The Economist‘s digital editor Tom Standage participated in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” today. The questions posed by the Reddit community ranged from why The Economist has no bylines to what new technologies will soon take over the world. There were also a number of questions on topics near to Lean Back 2.0′s heart — digital publishing, tablet reading and mobile apps. I’ve pulled out Standage’s publishing-related responses below, but I also recommend you read the full AMA for more insights.  

- On how he reads The Economist: “My preferred way to read The Economist is either in print or on a tablet, rather than online. I like to argue that what we sell is ‘the feeling of being informed when you get to the end’. You never get to the end of a website. It lacks what Phil Gyford calls ‘finishability’. By ‘magazine form’ I’m going to assume you mean ‘finishable form’ and that’s my preference. The website is for news updates, debates, research etc, rather than primarily for reading this week’s issue.”

- On the importance of social media in driving traffic to the Economist website: “It’s about 10% in terms of traffic. But I think that underplays its importance. One of the big problems The Economist has is that everyone thinks it only covers economics. They don’t realise that it’s a global weekly newspaper for the world! So there are all these people out there who don’t realise that they are Economist kinds of people. What’s brilliant about social media is that it lets us reach people who would otherwise not encounter our content. When they see a chart showing alcohol consumption by country or national variations in plastic surgery they are more likely to realise that we actually cover all kinds of things, in an analytical,  global way. Our content seems to work well on social media because people don’t want to admit that they read the Mail Online, but they want their friends to know that they read The Economist. So we’re a badge brand. In a decade’s time many of our subscribers will be people who first encountered The Economist not in an airport newsagent or the school library, but on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit.”

- On paywalls: I think we need a new word. Many opponents of paywalls are arguing against a kind of paywall (the watertight kind) that almost nobody uses. Like many other websites, we have a metered paywall. The New York Times does, too. But when companies report good results from paywalls, opponents of paywalls respond that ‘they don’t really count as paywalls’ because they are not watertight. This is tedious. So I applaud Andrew Sullivan’s use of the word ‘meter’ as an alternative to ‘paywall’. (But I know it’s really a metered paywall.)

- On mobile web versus native apps: “For the time being (the next two years, say) I think we’ll want to have native apps for iOS, Android etc. But like many people I think HTML5 will prevail eventually, particular for our sort of content. (Native apps will probably always make sense for things like games.) That said, I’d note that many apps are hybrid, combining native code with HTML5/Javascript/CSS; we are doing this on a couple of platforms, in fact (eg BlackBerry Playbook). Another problem for us is audio; you can’t cache 150MB of audio with an HTML5 app, and audio is one of the things people really love about our apps. So, we have an HTML5 app and we have native apps, and we’ll continue to assess the pros and cons of each. We’re also about to make our website more mobile-friendly, and I think that’s very important too. So it’s a hybrid world.”

- On the death of print: “Yes, our print circulation is over 1.5m but we think this is the top, and we expect it to decline. (We keep saying that, but it doesn’t. But it will.) That said, we hope that the number of subscribers will continue to increase, as we sign up more digital-only subscribers. We currently have 150,000 digital-only subscribers, and we also have 600,000 people (both subscribers and non-subscribers) using our apps each week. The important thing for us is to deliver distinctive content that readers will pay for; whether it’s on paper or a screen, or in audio format, is not really the point. Our aim is to deliver our content in whatever form our readers want it; we are not wedded to print.

- On Newsweek’s print demise: “I think they tried everything last year to try to get people to buy their print edition, and it didn’t work. So going all-digital makes sense. The bigger question for them, and for every publication (including us), is whether what they produce is distinctive enough to get people to subscribe. If people can get essentially the same thing elsewhere for free, then you’ve got a problem.”