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Since I set up this little newsletter, I've been thinking about digital subscriptions.
I had this exchange with Thomas Chatterton Williams on twitter a couple of weeks ago.
Maybe my subscription numbers seem like a lot? I don't know. I like supporting journalism and I do like the magazines I subscribe to. But the digital subscription model, just has these awkwardnesses to make it tricky.
There's the model where I'm meant to go to the magazine's website once a month and download the PDF of this month's issue. I just ended up never doing it because it's not part of my routine, and I don't want to read a PDF on my computer. So a year rolls by and I get a renewal email reminding me I subscribe to a magazine I never look at. At least with print subscriptions, there was always the reminder: a teetering pile of issues of the New Yorker on the nightstand.
And then there are the magazines where there's an app: which I need an iPhone to use (which I don’t have). There are others still who’ve built their own app which is virtually impossible to use. Attempting to scroll up and down on pages with multiple columns, when it’s only presented as an image, is a nightmare. And every second I’m thinking “Could you not just put this on Kindle?!”. Whatever you think of Amazon, they have magazines down. The way I can see both the print layout but also just the text, and zoom in or out and change the text size: just like reading a book on Kindle.
It's really easy, the interface is good and it's painful to watch magazines attempt to reinvent the wheel with less functional apps that don't really do what I want. I just go straight to the newsstand section of my Kindle and find all the magazines in one place, it's wonderful. I don’t want to download another frickin app.
And I'll admit it's a little like that with podcasts. I notice more of them now setting up their own app. Just no. If you’re not findable through my podcast app, or you don’t have an RSS feed I can add, forget it.
But I was thinking about this too in terms of academic journals. When I used to get a printed copy of the American Historical Review, I would actually read it. Now I know it's there somewhere in the digital world. But I don’t think “Oh, new issue today, let’s take a look”. I go to it if I’m searching for something in particular. And it's a shame because I've lost a lot of the serendipity that I used to enjoy. I would pick up an issue, and I would read through it, and there would be articles about all sorts of things that I don't necessarily know much about. Maybe I would learn something about sixteenth-century France, or the Spanish Civil War, or Soviet era politics.
Now, when I search for particular topics, I don't see these other pieces. That serendipity doesn't happen. It's a bit like open stacks and libraries, allowing you to look at what else is on the shelf, finding other things that have connections as well. Perhaps that is why I like twitter so much - it still has the possibility of genuine chance encounters, of stumbling on new ideas or discussions that I wouldn’t have sought out yet find engaging and useful.