I thought this interview with Nieman Labs was quite useful, although it’ll be irrelevant to most of you. This is mostly only going to be relevant to other bloggers and people who are heavy readers.
This is the key passage:
TOM STANDAGE: There are a number of big trends at the moment. The starting point is that we do see digital as an opportunity — because what we do, what our mission is, does not depend on the medium with which you deliver it. And I know everyone says that, but in our case it really is true, because what we actually sell is what I like to call the feeling of being informed when you get to the very end. So we sell the antidote to information overload — we sell a finite, finishable, very tightly curated bundle of content. And we did that initially as a weekly print product. Then it turns out you can take that same content and deliver it through an app.
The “you’ve got to the end and now you’ve got permission to go do something else” is something you never get. You can never finish the Internet, you can never finish Twitter, and you can never really finish The New York Times, to be honest. So at its heart is that we have this very high density of information, and the promise we make to the reader is that if you trust us to filter and distill the news, and if you give us an hour and a half of your time — which is roughly how long people spend reading The Economist each week — then we’ll tell you what matters in the world and what’s going on. And if you only read one thing, we want to be the desert-islandmagazine. And our readers, that’s what they say.
So that’s the starting point. The word “print” and the word “digital” don’t appear in there. This is a model that works in print and you can apply it to digital. And it is working — this is a product that does just as well in a digital world.
What we did with Espresso was instead of doing that in a weekly cadence, we should be doing it in a daily cadence. So Espresso is again meant to be the daily desert-island briefing. And there are a lot of these news daily briefings around, but what we wanted to be was forward-looking — to give you the feeling of being ahead of the news, “this is what’s coming up today, and look out for this.”
Another aspect of it is — and I get all the morning briefings,Sentences, the FT one, and Quartz’s, and the rest of them — is that we don’t do links. The reason that we don’t do links, again, if you want to get links you can get them from other people. You can go on Twitter and get as many as you like. But the idea was everything that you need to know is distilled into this thing that you can get to the end of, and you can get to the end of it without worrying that you should’ve clicked on those links in case there was something interesting. So we’ve clicked on the links already and we’ve decided what’s interesting, and we’ve put it in Espresso.
That’s the same that we do in the weekly as well — we’re not big on linking out. And it’s not because we’re luddites, or not because we don’t want to send traffic to other people. It’s that we don’t want to undermine the reassuring impression that if you want to understand Subject X, here’s an Economist article on it — read it and that’s what you need to know. And it’s not covered in links that invite you to go elsewhere. We’ll link to background, and we’ll link to things like white papers or scientific papers and stuff like that. The idea of a 600-word science story that explains a paper is that you only need to read the 600-word science story — you don’t actually have to fight your way through the paper. There is a distillation going on there.
That’s a big thing that we’re focusing on. How else can we apply the same values — which is the distillation and the finishability, the trend-spotting and the advocacy — how else can we apply them to new areas? So we have various things that are on the boil. As has been reported, we’re looking at foreign-language editions. It’s not quite editions, because we’re taking a slightly different approach to it. We haven’t said exactly what we’re doing there, but that’s very much something that digital distribution allows us to do.
The key takeaway, at least for me, is that people whose time is valuable want their reading packet to have a solid ending. Part of what makes the web addictive and enervating is that it goes on infinitely. Including lots of links in an article (or many links at all) is cognitively tempting, and tends to encourage infinite curiosity which is rarely satiated.
As a side note, I grew up reading the Economist from maybe around age 12 to my early 20s. I stopped because they’re filthy rotten Commies who only give people the illusion of being well-informed. Nonetheless, they’re effective at what they set out to do, so the structure is worth imitating somewhat, whereas the venture funded media companies (funded by a monetary policy the editorial staff at the Economist were happy to cheer on) don’t care about profit and are as such not under much real economic pressure to produce business models that work.
So, the weakness of the Economist model is that people like me, who should have been lifelong subscribers, no longer trust the judgment of the editorial team, which has pretenses towards political neutrality and intellectual excellence, but fails to fulfill those promises regularly. It’s the magazine of the ‘Davos Consensus / Soviet-Harvard Delusion,’ which is useful if you have to operate in that environment, but useless or damaging otherwise.
The method I’ve seen succeed recently is to have some mix of quick-bloggy-type posts along with larger, more permanent articles in a separate section. But there is no one ‘right’ answer, and a lot of the reason that I write like this is because it helps me to record/form my thoughts, invite criticism, and see what resonates and doesn’t with people.