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.
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!!!
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.