Why Isn't the Magazine Free with Ads? Volume.

I'm asked regularly (as recently as yesterday), why The Magazine isn't free to read and supported by advertising? We are, more or less, "freemium": you can read an article per issue at no cost, but if you want all five articles and other stuff (like downloadable or automatically emailed EPUB and MOBI files, and more to come), you pay $2 a month (10+ articles a month) or $20 per year (130+ articles a year).

The economics are straightforward, and worth explaining. The amount of money you can get from advertising on a general editorial site has been declining as the level at which advertisers find the value worthwhile hasn't found bottom. Some sites can command high CPM (cost per mille, or thousand, ad impressions) rates because their visitors intensively click and do stuff, like buy things, sign up for offers, view other  ads, and so forth. But for most publications, even those in the formerly lucrative technology/gadget space, the value of an impression has shrunk.

This is why you see a focus on high-traffic blogs of sponsors, in which the objective is branding (plus some sales), and the association with the blog is a good part of the deal. Sites that have started up in the last couple of years often have a product focus: they refer you to Amazon or other sites to buy things. Look at one of my favorites, The Wirecutter, which has ads and product links both. One person buying a $100 item could mean $5 to $10 in commissions to the site in question. Other sites continue to focus on volume, and need a bazillion page views to generate a decent return.

Let's do the simple math in my case on a per subscriber basis. If I have one person paying $1.99 in a given month to get 10 new articles (and access archives, too), I will net either $1.39 (Apple takes 30%) or $1.63 (Stripe.com takes 30¢ plus 2.9% per transaction).

How could I achieve the same results from ads? The current average CPM is $2.66 according to a recent report, and let's assume optimistically that's the net amount after commissions and other fees to me. So that should be a simple bit of math: I need about 500 to 600 page views to equal that one subscriber across the whole site. Let's say I could get a $10 CPM, because we are so remarkably awesome: then it's only 140 to 160 page views to equal one subscriber.

But that's not the whole story. First, you need substantial traffic to sell traffic. If I have 100,000 page views on my subscription-only site that has limited free content (that's not the real count) it's unlikely I can attract any advertisers directly, and I'd need to go through a network, which reduces my net income. 100,000 page views, even at a $10 CPM is $1,000 a month. It might be months or a year before my tactic of "free" works and I ramp up to 100,000s or more than 1,000,000 page views a month, if that tactic works at all.

Because I have only about 150 articles on the site, and all as single pages, my inventory of pages is low enough that it would be hard to get substantial new traffic unless every article hit a home run. So let's say I split articles into multiple pages, irritating and discouraging readers, and have 600 to 1,000 pages that people might view. It's still small. And because I have in-depth, high-quality writing that takes quite a lot of time to produce, it would be expensive to keep the standards up and have more pages to offer. (This is in contrast to good news sites that produce on a deadline, and are writing about facts, rather than constructing narratives! There's nothing wrong with reporters producing news stories quickly.)

Second, even if I can manage to attract a lot of people, one never sells 100% of your advertising inventory (available slots), even if you're a great site. Some networks do, like The Deck, because they design an approach around super amounts of attention and scarcity. But it only works in very limited cases.

Third, I have to devote attention and worry to this. Attention, because I'll be spending hours or more every month talking with ad people and agencies if I want to get the highest possible CPM. Worry, because every month is a new adventure. I have no idea what my income will be. At the end of a quarter, when ad budgets are tight, it could shrink to nearly nothing. There's simply no way to know. Or a primary advertiser might go from spending $10,000 a month to nothing, ever again, for whatever reason (budget, anger, response rates, etc.).

I don't want to reveal specific subscriber numbers as a small business, but let's take the rough number of 25,000 that Marco put out to Planet Money several months ago as a basis. Let's even assume 100% of those subscribers are monthly and through the App Store, thus grossing about $35,000 before taxes.

To achieve that number consistently, The Magazine would have to sell ads at $2.66 CPM on 13 million page views a month, which means we would probably need 20 million page views to make those numbers.

Is our modest fortnightly periodical going to attract 20 million page views against 150 or so articles every month? Unlikely. Can we attract enough subscribers on an ongoing basis to bring in revenue that lets us pay writers well and sustain our operations? Yes. 

It's an ongoing experiment rather than a business model for now, but I hope this clears up why free couldn't possibly work for us in the current model of advertising-supported content. 

This essay was inspired by Seth Sternberg's frank post about advertising and his time at Meebo. The link was given to me by Dalton Caldwell of App.net. 

The Magazine Issue 28: New Deal, Body Parts, and More


The latest issue of The Magazine is out!

It’s rude to reduce people to a collection of body parts, but that’s precisely what some models want. Those who specialize in showing off hands, feet, legs, lips, and other elements are best known for being unrecognizable as the whole, as Chris Stokel-Walker examines in “Some of Their Parts.”

Medical professionals in hospitals have to keep a brave face around patients and even other staff. In “A Separate Peace,” Saul Hymes, a pediatrician, explains the secret places that help doctors, nurses, and others keep their wits about them when faced with endless days and grief.

Elisabeth Eaves said she had a great story about personal submarines in Malta. How could we say no to that? She brought back a report on the quirky idea of making tiny submarines for personal exploration, and she took her own dive down under in “His Life Aquatic.”

It’s an irrefutable truth that we are all aging. Rich Mogull has always been athletic. He can snap me in two, let me tell you. But as he’s aged, his body has rebelled, and in “Best Used By” he details the ailments and accommodations that have led him to his current level of satisfaction.

As part of the set of programs known as the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration was a way to get people earning money during the Great Depression. Celeste LeCompte finds that the WPA is still all around us, hidden. Read about how a group has set about documenting it in “Works in Progress.”


Make a Newsstand App into a Home Page Icon

As the editor and publisher of The Magazine, I have a little problem with Apple's Newsstand, even though it has served me and the publication well. It's become in iOS 7 an easy way to lose track of what you're reading. In iOS 5 and 6, the Newsstand faux folder showed tiny previews of the latest covers; in iOS 7, even those are gone. People forget about us. I expanded with my thoughts at TidBITS on an essay that Marko Karppinen wrote. He runs a publishing platform, and now recommends to his clients that the Newsstand advantages, which include an updated app icon for each new issue, no longer outweigh the disadvantages.

But I figured out one workaround for readers last night, and Marko told me via (public) Twitter he has a few more ideas he's working on, all of which will fit inside of Apple's current guidelines. 

It's been possible for several years to take a Web page in Safari and turn it into a link (or even a freestanding Web app) on your home screen. On any page, tap the Sharing button and then Add to Home Screen. This takes the current visible screen and makes it a tiny but ugly icon, and puts it in the next available slot on a home screen page (typically starting at the second page).

But Apple looks at the HEAD part of the Web page to see if there are META tags that reference app icons. If so, it pulls in the appropriate icon, and the home screen pseudo-app now looks pretty. 

I realized that I could provide a way to link our Web site to the app via an icon through a simple Web page.  I create a page that has the app icons referenced in the top, but also uses the ancient "refresh" option: a browser waits a specified number of seconds and then redirects to a specified URL. Apps can have a URL schema name in iOS; The Magazine 's is the-magazine.

Thus, I created a page that, when visited, automatically redirects the browser instantly to the-magazine:// — this opens the app if it's installed in iOS. That doesn't seem useful, though, right? The point is to get an app icon on the home screen! Ah, but it does work. It just takes an extra step for the user. 

  1. The user loads the redirection page. (I've posted the HTML into a Github file.) 
  2. Safari opens the app.
  3. Return to Safari. The page is static since it's not loading.
  4. Tap Sharing, then Add to Home Screen. The title of the page is prefilled and the icon is grabbed from the reference in the page.  
  5. Tap Add. 

Tap the icon on the home screen, and it loads Safari, opens that page (probably cached), and in a few tenths of second launches the app. It's not perfect, but it's far better than the current alternative for readers who want an icon on their home screen.

Marko notes that it's possible to do this with a configuration file, too, in which the icon would directly link to the app's schema, and not require a Safari pass-through. I'll post more in the future. 

Marking 300 at the Economist


I've been writing for the Economist  in print since 2005, and contributed a couple dozen pieces, mostly for the Technology Quarterly  supplement, including a cover story in the spring. I started to contribute to Economist.com in the summer of 2010, starting at the new Babbage block for science and technology crossed with culture and policy. The editor at the time, who left a few months later, asked if I'd contribute a couple of items a week.

Three years later, I still more or less do. (I missed a few this summer between a heart procedure and taking over The Magazine.) I just hit the 300th item posted in the system, though it's not yet live. (A couple may not have been noted correctly in the early days, so I may be slightly over 300.)

Over three years, I've mostly written as Babbage (we typically write in the third person, as in "this Babbage finds himself in a morgue"), but also as Prospero, Gulliver, and Schumpeter, the books, travel, and business blog eponyms. In recent months, since the newspaper launched the Economist Explains blog, I've written a number of those as well. 

In a wonderful bit of timing, an Explains I wrote titled, "Who owns your data when you're dead?" was published the day I unexpectedly had a treadmill stress test turn into a heart stent to clear a blocked artery. Not long after, I wrote another Explains item: "How can radiation therapy cause heart disease?"

It's a privilege to write for the Economist  not just because it is, in fact, the best publication in the world. But also because the editors are a wonderful bunch who treat me well and nurture my words. It's a treat. 

While the print publication eschews bylines, it was decided after it began to run blogs that it would make sense to identify the author or authors of a post by initials as such entries were breezier and more personal. You can find me as "G.F. | SEATTLE"; this Google search will find some subset of my Babbage posts.

Podcasts from XOXO

While I was in Portland two weeks ago for the XOXO festival and conference, I recorded two kinds of podcasts. 

I walked around the exhibition space of XOXO and had conversations with four interesting, independent product developers for The New Disruptors. That episode is now up.

Separately, since Jason Snell, the proprietor of The Incomparable, was present, and Greg Knauss, a regular panelist, was there, and Jeff Carlson, this guy we know, was attending, we convened a panel about independent projects and media. (Thank you, Greg Koenig and Duncan Davidson of Luma Labs for finding us a place to record!) 

Did you know that The Incomparable has a couple of T-shirts for sale? And there are only a few days left to buy them before they're gone forever? 


Two Squarespace Image Placement Tips

I've been using Squarespace for months and have been quite happy with how it takes care of so many Web page and site details for me, while also affording me the chance to customize. (I have beat the heck out of adding CSS tweaks.)

Images were still driving me batty, though. Inserting images into a post and resizing them seemed inconsistent and problematic, but I worked through. I finally went to the community forum and knowledgebase sites Squarespace operates and dug around until I found the answer to of the biggest problems. 

You can drag and drop from the New Content Block list into a post.

In the corner of a post, there's a + icon. Click it, and you get a list of the various kinds of content blocks you can add to a page. If you just click a block, it's inserted at the end of the post. This is a pain because you then have to drag an image (or other item) up through the post, and in Firefox on Mac, at least, it doesn't scroll for posts. (It does when you're editing a page's layout.)

You don't have to do that. Just click +, and then drag the block into the page where you want it to go . This doesn't let you set up a left or right float, but it will let you put a block in as an "insert" or "row."  

Resizing an image requires using the left/right handles, not the bottom handle.

When you have an image in a post, the left/right handles resize it proportionately. The bottom handle crops it, after which point, the left/right handles crop left or right! This drove me nuts. To reset proportionate resizing, double-click the bottom handle.