The Atlantic Weekly and Completism

My friend and editor Tom Standage (@tomstandage) explained the problem of completism to me recently. Tom is the digital editor of the Economist , and I have written for him for going on a decade. People get tied into knots "finishing" the print edition, and that extends to the digital apps as well. We all have friends and colleagues who have stacks of New Yorkers, Atlantics, and Economists  lying about waiting to be read.

They will never be read. But there is a compulsion to "complete" them. Hence, the Economist's apps don't include all the constantly updated content from the newspaper's Web site. This would drive completists nuts. They would literally never finish reading. (I skim Twitter. My friend Lex Friedman (@lexfri) reads it completely. This is the same split in approach and compulsion, dare I say.)

The table of contents. 

The table of contents. 

The Atlantic  announced The Atlantic Weekly  app today, which is a brilliant idea in that vein. For $1.99 an issue, $2.99 a month, or $19.99 per year, the app provides a weekly subset of the now fairly extensive  amounts of content that the Atlantic's Web sites produce. It is free of advertising. "We're aiming to provide readers with a selection of stories and ideas on screens scrubbed of all distractions," the editors write. Yes, that sounds familiar. At least they put the table of contents on the right.*

They are taking their unlimited spigot of writing and turning it into a product for completists who, they hope, are willing to pay for the privilege of having original content curated down to a manageable form without advertisements blaring at them and requiring choices that put ads above readability. (They might turn the volume down a bit: on an iPhone, the June 9 issue is 61 MB; June 16, 47 MB.)

Enjoy the wood-grained finish while it lasts. 

Enjoy the wood-grained finish while it lasts. 

This was part of the thinking that led Marco to found The Magazine: five original features every other week designed to appeal to an audience that has an unlimited amount of content to read, a finite amount of attention, and perhaps a slight aversion to pages encrusted with ads. Thus, without any hubris, The Magazine was meant partly to replace other endless founts of writing — to provide a literal starting and stopping point in a package.  Or at least provide a respite of completism in the middle of a flood of words.

For the Atlantic, this is an experiment to see whether presenting the same material already paid and budgeted for in one method of delivery can, in a different package (streamlined, finite, ad free), earn a different revenue stream. I expect it's a precursor to subscriber-only content or a way to fund different kinds of articles that may run on the Web but be intended for readers of the app. 

For me, this is a continued vindication of Marco's founding ideas. As he noted in the press release we put out to announce our sale agreement (he wrote this part, folks):  

Publications that started in print carry too much baggage and usually have awful apps. The Magazine was designed from the start to be streamlined, natively digital, and respectful of readers' time and attention.


*I kid. In print, many magazines have long had a left-side partial flap or devoted the left side of the cover to the table of contents. It's where the metaphor came for The Magazine's listing of articles, and it's used in other reading and publication apps, too, for the same reason. The Atlantic notes that it used to — like Foreign Affairs still does today with a bit of typographic fanciness — devote its print cover to just listing the issue's contents.