The Last Word (for Now) on Our RSS Feed: An Excruciatingly Long and Boring Post That Will Please Exactly No One

The post that follows isn’t likely to make anyone happy.

It is our third recent post about Freakonomics.com’s RSS feed. Here is No. 1 and here is No. 2.

For the readers who have no idea what a feed is and don’t care, this post is probably of zero value. Feel free to skip it.

The people who do read the blog via feed, meanwhile, and prefer the old full feed to the current partial feed, won’t be receiving the outcome they wanted.

After a lot of deliberation, here’s the deal: we still won’t be offering a full feed of our blog, at least for now. Yes, this is a result of our new partnership with NYTimes.com. You can blame the Times if you want, but that would be unfair and imprecise, since this is a partnership, which means that you should also feel free to blame us. There are quite a few things worth mentioning here, so I’ll lay them out:

1. Over the past two years, we have built up a substantial feed readership, and from the sound of these readers’ comments, many of them will be unsubscribing. To all of you, we say: sorry we’ve disappointed you; we’re sad you’re leaving; thanks for reading in the past; and I hope you’ll come back if we ever resume full feed. In the meantime, we hope you’ll visit the site, but as some of you have made brutally clear, that option doesn’t work for you.

2. Since this situation is a direct result of our move to NYTimes.com, let me start by clearing up a couple of things. We have not sold our blog to the Times, as has been widely reported. What we did is create a partnership, moving our formerly independent blog onto The New York Times‘ website. As for the business model, it’s pretty straightforward: the Times sells ads on its web pages; Freakonomics.com is now one of its web pages; we get some of the money from the ads sold on our pages. I will address below some of the benefits of this partnership, and why we welcome the chance to have some of that money. But let me start by addressing a couple of the perceived deficits:

3. The switch from full feed to partial feed. Way back when we first started talking to the Times, they said that they, like most content providers of their sort, favor partial feeds. Why? As much as people like to say that “information wants to be free,” content does not like to be created for free. In order to pay all the writers, editors, photographers, graphic artists, technologists, and the few dozen other kinds of folks who create and curate the Times‘s content, most of which is free on the web (and perhaps all of which soon will be), the Times sells ads on its site. But can’t they sell ads on a full feed, so that feed readers can still get all the content they want delivered to their computers for free without having to visit a single web site? The short answer is yes, they can, and our friends at FeedBurner, who have been distributing our feed, created a great business by doing so. But the Times and its advertisers aren’t crazy about this option. (Nor are they alone, apparently.) Why? This is the fundamental point: many advertisers do not value feed readers as much as they value site readers, since they believe that feed readers are far harder to measure and track. (The folks at FeedBurner have a different view, of course.) In a perfect world, would we prefer to be sending out a full feed, with advertising? Yes. But is that preference overridden by a preference to have a partnership with the Times, and all the opportunity that entails? The answer here is also yes. Is it possible that the full feed will eventually be offered again? Once again: yes. Are there strong and sane opposing views on this issue? Absolutely. You can read, for instance, what TechDirt wrote about full feeds potentially creating more site traffic, not less. There’s another interesting view at Online Spin and another at Poynter.org.

4. But shouldn’t you just keep giving away your content for free via feed, since that’s what you were doing before on Freakonomics.com? Well, we are still giving away our content for free. It’s just that you have to come to NYTimes.com to read it. I don’t blame feed readers for being disappointed about no longer receiving the content they’d gotten used to, for free, delivered so they can read it offline, etc. That’s what accommodation and loss aversion are about: if something you have is taken away, it’s more painful than if you’d never had it in the first place. (Or: ’tis worse, apparently, to have loved and lost …) But this is why Joseph Schumpeter called capitalism “creative destruction.”

5. This leads to an interesting question: since our blog is still available for free on the Times site, what does it say about its value that someone who reads it via partial feed isn’t willing to click through to read it on the site? If it’s not worth clicking through, then apparently the blog is not worth very much at all. So if it’s not worth very much, it shouldn’t be that big a deal to not read it any more. (Or maybe we should try charging for a full feed. Is it worth $1/year? $5?) Judging from feed readers’ comments on the blog — a compelling but hardly representative sample of public sentiment, since far more people read this blog via the site than via feed — it seems that the blog isn’t very valuable to those readers, since so many of them are ready to jump. Take these examples from readers:

So in short: FULL FEEDS, OR ELSE!!!

and:

I recommend a boycott. Don’t click through until the full feed is back. Only collective action can succeed. I’m gone. (Sorry SD/SL).

To be fair to ourselves, other commenters feel differently:

So here’s the gist of these comments: If you don’t give me my FREE content, which means I won’t ever have to actually go to your website, I’m going to stop reading your blog! If I were the authors I’d say, “OK, bye!” Because what the hell are you doing for them? You’re not paying a dime, you’re not bringing traffic to the site, you’re not clicking on ads. Your threats to take your “business” elsewhere are laughable.

I assume this last one was not written by a member of the Times‘s digital business group, at least in part because company policy forbids such communications.

6. Finally, I’d like to address the reason that we made this move in the first place: it has afforded us the opportunity to make the blog bigger and better (or so we hope). How? Among other things, by hiring an editor to manage the site and help generate the new content we’ve been posting, including the Freakonomics Quorums, reader-submitted Q&A’s, and book excerpts. There are also the videos we have begun producing for the site, which are currently found in the video player in the right column of our home page, but will soon be integrated into the blog’s main column. There are a number of other improvements and additions, some visible and some not. In a larger sense, we’re hoping to use the Times‘s reach and technology to enhance what we’ve been doing since 2005, in a way that keeps the conversation from our book going. As nice as it would be to still have a full feed, these enhancements are some of the reasons why we hope people find it worthwhile to come visit the site itself.

There are bound to be complications to a move like ours, a move from pure independence to partnership with one of the biggest media properties in the world. The discontent over the feed is one substantial complication; perhaps there will be others. We have no greater ambition here than to make Freakonomics.com a nice little 5-minute daily visit that gives our readers something to think about, talk about, stew about. I hope we can at least accomplish that. Now it’s time to stop writing about the blog and start writing on it.

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mgroves

I don't know what the fuss is all about, I've been perfectly happy with RSS feeds from day 1, and the transition was near perfect.

Sentinel

I've been reading this blog via feed for about a year and have no plans to stop. In addition to being so easy to just "right click", "open in new tab" (I use Firefox/Sage) I also like to be able to quickly scan what topics and short descriptions are available and read things in depth that look interesting. I can skip all of the "And Today is..." spam (sorry whoever came up with that idea) and go straight to the econ.

Ari Pernick

Thanks for frank comments.
First off I just realized today that I was hardly reading Freakonomics anymore. Generally speaking I visit a site (vrs read the feed) when the content is interesting enough to bookmark into del.icio.us, share with someone or I want to read the comments. I've found that the partial feed doesn't usually have enough for me to make this decision, and as a result, I'm reading the site considerably less. I hope the New York Times (and you) will either make the partial feed a much better teaser or figure out that you get less bang for the buck this way. Good luck.

-- Ari

Thomas Williams

Disappointing, but by no means a surprise. At least not from the NYTimes side. But you're economists: why not do a study? Offer full feeds for a while, and see if page views do increase, as some other sites suggest, through more word-of-mouth recommendations, more people clicking-through to comment or to read the comments, and so on.

mhick

I agree with mgroves. I use a web-based feedreader (two, in fact), and about half of the feeds I read require click-thrus to view the full article. As long as the snippet contains enough info to let me know if the full article is worth reading, no problem.

Stephen Duncan Jr

I'm not going to stop reading the blog, but I've noticed that ever since the switch, the number of posts I've read is now probably 5% compared to what I read before.

The problem is, now you've got to convince me to be interested with a title and a really short bit of excerpted text. I've don't have numbers to back it up, but I believe I actually visit the site less often now too. With full content, I would read more posts, and for some percentage of those posts, I would visit the site to read the comments associated with it. I think this is an additional reason on top of what TechDirt wrote that full-content feeds can lead to more page views.

The more content in the feed, the better chance that I'll see something that makes me interested in a post, so my humble suggestion is that the partial-content feed should have more of the text. Even among the partial-content feeds I subscribe to, this blog is one of the stingier in terms of the amount of text displayed.

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jbid

This post made ME terribly happy. I have never been so entertained by a defense of what should be a rather dry and technical discussion of a distribution model change. But I suppose that this is what brings you here in the first place...

rattlingthekettle.com

I won't stop reading your blog because of the partial RSS feed, but I will, inevitably, read less of your writing -- your 50-odd-word excerpts are too short to grab my attention and make me want to click through.

A slightly longer partial feed would, I think, increase your clickthrough rate.

Dave K.

WAY too much of an explanation, not in that 14-year-old-mom-stop-talking-to-me kind of way, but in the way that you really don't owe us one.

You guys are doing a great job and made the right decision. It's not your fault Internet has led to a crank epidemic.

SpaceDog

> This is the fundamental point: many advertisers do
> not value feed readers as much as they value site
> readers, since they believe that feed readers are
> far harder to measure and track.

Then they're idiots. But you know that.

Of course being a blog with a strong economics slant it might be an interesting thing to set up an experiment about ...

Anyroads, I don't really care one way or another -- I prefer full feeds but I already read many other sites with only partial feeds. One more isn't going to push me over the edge.

It's just a shame that the people who can't, for whatever reason, read the full site will be deprived of the content.

Scarfish

I prefer full feeds, but I won't be unsubscribing. I'll likely be clicking through less, but only because the teaser sentence doesn't give a great idea what the post is actually about, so most things seem not to be that interesting (so one point you could argue for a full feed is that you've lost perceived value for your readers by not giving them the best incentive to click through).

I hope you work up an economic model to prove that feed readers ARE valuable--sometimes more valuable--than site readers. I don't have time to visit dozens of sites every day, but I check my feed reader every single time I turn on my computer. I read several blogs that push ads through the feed, and I don't mind one bit. People who use aggregators might be more tech savvy, more willing to spend money on electronics, more interested in elite products or more receptive to advertising for certain publications than those who visit a site...but the Times doesn't even seem willing to do the research, now you're missing that audience because of their shortsighted (in my opinion) policy.

In short, keep up the good work. If you're need to place priorities on giving feed readers what they want, work on accurate, interesting summaries first, and then push-advertising to allow full feeds.

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jonathan

You can't argue with slashdot geeks. Just do your thing knowing you'll piss off someone.

Andrew Grant

If you're using the Google Reader to get your RSS feeds, they have a slick tool for reading summary feeds.

Go to Settings, then click on Goodies. Read the section titled: Put Reader in a bookmark. It has instructions (don't worry it's simple) to create a bookmarklet.

With this bookmarklet, I have a little button that says 'Next' on my toolbar that will go to the next post in my RSS feed that is tagged 'Summaries'. Hope that helps.

For the record, summary feeds suck, but I'll continue to read. You can embed ads in RSS feeds (see engadget) and text ads are better (see google).

Steve

Good for you guys! Please try to encourage NYT to improve the quality of the partial feeds.
Best of luck.

CarterB

I've two problems with NYTimes fee. One is I'm a full paper subscriber so I spend $600 a year with them but I still have to click through to read articles. I wish they'd offer a private password protected full feed for people who are Time Select members (or so). Second, calling it a partial feed is a misnomer. It's a sliver feed. Half of the posts I have on idea what they are talking about from the headline and 20 words in the feed. Thus, I won't click and if history is any indication (see all the tnr.com feeds), I will slowly stop reading the blog due to my lack of perceived value. You, the blog writers, must make an effort to make the "partial" feed fully understandable so I know when I want to click through.

Jonathan

No problems here. Keep up the good work!

(For those readers whose index fingers will get overly fatigued by the extra click per article, perhaps you can suggest some sort of exercise regimen to assist them.)

Devan

This sort of behavior changes the way writers have to write. They have to create "interesting" (click-bait) and the first two sentences have to be gold (again, click-bait). It means that the entire article has to be sold by a title and 20 words, and that is disappointing. Already newspapers like NYT have been learning to craft their headlines for search engines and click traffic, and the same happens for blogs that provide partial feeds.

jd

I am among the readers who really dislike having to click through to read the whole article. I would MUCH prefer to have inline ads in the full feed than have to visit the site. That said, I'll probably stay subscribed because I like the content, but I will certainly skip some articles that I would have found interesting. I'll skip these articles because the very short feed text may not give me enough to know the post is interesting to me. So I am a rational homo economist who wants to minimize transaction costs. Sometimes, however, this results in both type I and type II errors: sometimes I click through and the post is uninteresting, sometimes I fail to click through and the post would have been interesting to me. The funny thing about measuring the error, however, is that I can only accurately measure the error for instances when I click through and the post was not worth reading. I have selection bias! So, on net, my overall impression of the quality of your posts will certainly go down because I am not reading the entire population, but rather a biased sample. *Shrug* Thats enough econthought for one morning. I guess the moral of the story is that the first 290 characters of your posts just because MUCH more financially important. I guess its a bit like writing the front page excerpts for the WSJ.

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parker

I agree with what's already been said:

I will NOT unsubscribe
I will click through less.

The short excerpts generally don't catch my attention, as opposed to the full article where I would read all the way through and then want to see the comments.

Zathrus

I can understand the decision, and I won't unsubscribe, but unless the snippets get a lot more useful then it's very unlikely I'll click through and read the post. Right now they're simply too short and too uninformative -- and in the absence of information I simply won't read on (most likely to my own loss).

If you want an example of a site that has a partial feed but still makes me want to click through (and often), then check out Ars Technica (http://arstechnica.com). They don't simply snip X characters from the top of the article. Yes, this is more involved. I also think it's worth it.

I would suggest that the authors look at the partial feeds currently coming out (I'd hope they're already doing so) and see if they honestly think they contain enough useful info to interest readers into clicking through.