The Growing Business of Monetizing Other People’s Content

For the last couple of years I have been an active user of Instapaper, Marco Arment’s excellent service for saving online articles for later reading. According to his press kit the service has more than 1 million signed up users and is profitable.

Instapaper is successful for good reason — it offers a lot of value to users. If you have the iPhone or iPad app and you have opened one of these apps while connected to the Internet, then the text of the articles you have saved will be available from that device even if it is offline (e.g. in the subway). The Instapaper UI allows you to read the articles without the distractions that the original publisher of the content saw fit to place near the article. Ads, for example, do not follow articles into Instapaper. The saved articles also serve as a useful archive of the things you found interesting enough to save for later.

So it was from the perspective of an appreciative end user that I recently started questioning the Instapaper model. After all, Angie and I make our living as a small web publisher. There are probably YLF readers using Instapaper to save Angie’s articles for later. When this occurred to me I immediately experienced a rush of involuntary emotions. The knee-jerk reaction of someone with a small online business where advertising revenue puts food on the table, who has invested time in designing and building the site, and who watches his wife spend many hours researching and writing most of the site’s content.

I did the healthy thing. I tweeted.

I’m torn about @instapaper & @readability. As a user I like them. As a publisher I feel that they monetize our content without permission.

Marco responded:

Instapaper’s mechanics respect publishers and their pageviews more than any similar service.

I agree with this. On Instapaper’s information for publishers page you can read about preparing your webpage so that Instapaper will parse it correctly (as a tech-savvy user you can even customize the way Instapaper represents ANY site when you save it for reading later). And if you object to Instapaper using your content, you as a publisher can opt out.

And as Marco pointed out to me in email, Instapaper has engagement benefits for a publisher:

The most common use-case by far is this: someone opens up a page on the publisher’s site, looks around for a bit and reads the first few paragraphs, clicks the Read Later bookmarklet, then reads the rest in Instapaper. This gives most publishers as much value as any other viewing method, and since it helps people read longer articles attentively instead of just skimming them briefly and clicking away, most publishers have noted increased engagement and return rates from Instapaper users. (In fact, almost every staff member at publishers I’ve spoken with has used Instapaper themselves.) Publishers almost universally agree that this use of Instapaper is beneficial to everyone.

But here’s the thing: However much Instapaper has our benefit in mind, it is monetizing our content in a way that we did not explicitly approve. And while there might be an engagement benefit for us as publishers, as a user of Instapaper I know that I spend much less time in the publisher’s world and more time in Instapaper than I used to. After reading a Daring Fireball article on John Gruber’s site, I’m very likely to read another DF article. After reading a DF article on Instapaper, I’ll probably go from that to something completely different. Bottom line: The benefits for publishers argument isn’t a slam dunk either way.

And it isn’t like RSS. Although many people consume our content in RSS readers, it was our choice to provide a full RSS feed in the first place, and if we choose to do so we can put ads in the feed.

Drawing the Line

In the market of read-it-later apps, Marco is the good guy. While speaking to him it becomes clear that he has been thoughtful about the impact on publishers when designing Instapaper. His competitors, on the other hand, are going much further in repurposing other people’s content without much consideration for the original publisher. Primarily this comes in the form of being able to click links and save them for reading later without ever having gone to the publisher’s site. When this happens, the publisher never sees any advertising revenue and doesn’t get the opportunity to present their content in the context of their own design.

Then there is the feature of rendering multi-page articles in a single page. We don’t do multi-page articles on YLF, and I am sometimes annoyed by reading them on other sites, but I do respect the publisher’s right to offer their content in this way. We as readers can then make the trade off and decide whether the value of an article overrides the annoyance of clicking multiple pages to read it. Despite a lot of user pressure, Marco does not offer the feature of piecing multiple page articles into a single page (his competitors use this as a key differentiator).

Update on 3/4/2012: A few days ago Marco updated the Instapaper bookmarklet to support the saving of multiple page articles. It seems the competitive pressure finally outweighed the negative impact he knew this would have on publishers. This is completely understandable, but underscores the point that read-it-later services will struggle to prioritize the interests of the publisher.

So as a publisher the concern isn’t as much the impact of Instapaper as it is the impact of a wide range of parasitic apps that have repurposing your content as their business model. If it is ok to ingest a publisher’s content without their consent and then monetize that content, where does one draw the line? If the argument is that the app offers a better experience than the original publisher, then is it ok for me to ingest the content of the Salon.com and present it in a nicer, more convenient interface alongside my own ads?

A Middle Ground

A couple of years ago one of our readers brought it to our attention that a small company was copying Angie’s blog posts (almost verbatim), compiling them into a PDF document, and sending this document to their members as part of a paid subscription. I don’t think anyone would condone this. It is a blatant example of someone stealing and monetizing our content. One clear difference between this and a read-it-later app is that these people weren’t even crediting the original source of the material. But let’s say they had clearly noted that all the content was taken from YLF and was written by Angie, would it have been ok to package it and sell it to their members in a format that their particular readers found more convenient?

I don’t think so. I think there must be a model where publishers have more say in how their content is monetized AND and where users get the benefits of read-it-later features and apps. Napster showed us a better way to distribute digital music, and then iTunes showed us a way to do it while respecting the creators of the music. Will there be an iTunes of online publishing?

One Instapaper alternative, Readability, has already tried a middle ground that includes publishers in their monetization model. In Readability’s original model readers could optionally become subscribers, and then 70% of their subscription fee was paid to the original publishers of the articles that were saved by the user. I don’t think this is the solution. For one thing, publishers had to know about Readability and sign up to receive their payments. And while it felt like nice gesture on their part, we as a publisher did not agree to participate in Readability on these terms. We have not had any involvement in the pricing of the subscription and we did not negotiate our cut. In a way, Readability was on more shaky ground than Instapaper because it is making a tacit acknowledgement that writers and publishers should participate in the economics of a save it for later reading service.

Also, the Readability subscription is now free and I can’t see any mention of the original model on their website, so that experiment doesn’t seem to have been an unqualified success. I talked to a Readability representative and they told me that although it is still available “We don’t really mention the paid option on the site, since paying is entirely opt-in.

Update on 2/24/2012: Max Fenton of Readability has subsequently clarified that once a reader is logged in, the opt in subscription option is mentioned on every page of the site except articles themselves. Max tells me that they learned through feedback that explaining the payments model before a new reader had signed up was complicated. For me the salient point is that, whatever the reason, the publisher support aspect of Readability’s model is far less prominent today than it was when I first learned about them. Also, I originally stated that the writer share of opt-in subscriptions was 30%, but it is 70%.

The App Response

Read-it-later apps can function because web pages are designed to be machine readable. Ultimately human readable of course, but before you see a page, your browser needs to interpret its native language of HTML, CSS and Javascript. This means that apps like Instapaper “scrape” and ingest the content. Few publishers created their web pages with this in mind. It is just a side effect of the openness of the web.

Traditional publishing business models were in trouble long before read-it-later apps came along, but new publishers with lower overheads are doing quite well on an ad-supported basis. That might change as more and more of a publisher’s content is consumed somewhere other than the place they intended. These new publishers might find themselves looking at some of the same options that traditional publishers have been wrestling with.

The first of these options is the Internet paywall, which major publishers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have embraced in different ways. A more recent approach rides the resurgence of native apps that was catalyzed by Apple’s iOS App Store 1.

Publishing via an app allows the publisher to tightly control their user experience and business model. And it allows them to side-step the ugliness of any public conflict with apps that are scraping their content.

On the other hand, by going to an app the publisher gives up a medium that was designed to deliver hyperlinked content to the masses. And they give up the ease of web based sharing and all the viral advantages associated with that. There’s a lot of baby going out with the bath water.

Trade offs notwithstanding, this shift is happening and in the process some content is migrating from the web to native apps. Of course, the content will still be flowing over the Internet, probably even using the web’s HTTP protocol, but the point is that it won’t be readable in a general purpose web browser, but rather in the custom, publisher-specific web browser that is the publisher’s app.

The Web as Solution

I like apps for many things, but I also want to live in a world where the open web is alive and well. When people talk about the web versus apps, it is surprising how often they discount the single, incredible innovation that defines the web and is not available to apps: the hyperlink. Apps create silos. Delightful silos, but silos nonetheless. They are connected to the web, but they are not in the web. You can link from an app to a web page, but you can’t link from the web to an “app page”. You can’t find an “app page” using web search unless the app developer creates a page that mirrors that content.

I think that the massive advantages of being in the web as opposed to being attached to it will keep many publishers there. And if the hyperlink-fueled  growth of the web itself is anything to go by, they will thrive, even as apps and services scrape and monetize their content. Their user experiences will improve, and they will figure out how to make the in-situ consumption of their content so compelling that readers will be loathe to read it elsewhere.

And for inspiration they need look no further than the class-leading read-it-later apps like Instapaper and Readability. These apps succeed because they solve a problem for people. There is no doubt that much of their value proposition exists precisely because publishers have such broken user experiences today. Publishers should ask themselves why people need a third party service to get a “reading friendly” experience. And they should think about how they might partner with offline consumption services like Instapaper in a model where everybody, especially the reader, wins.

  1. I don’t view opting out as viable option because (1) it probably isn’t practical to for publishers to play whac-a-mole with emerging read-it-later apps and (2) opting out paints the publisher in a negative light when the annoying message appears telling users that this publisher doesn’t allow their content to be read later.

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Instapaper, Readability and monetizing other people’s content — Tech News and Analysis said on April 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm

[...] produce — whether it’s paywalls or apps or other subscription models — why not take advantage of a service that at least some readers have already shown they want, and are willing to pay for? Either that, or come up with your own version of Readability and [...]