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How Users Are App-ifying The Web, With or Without Publishers

Magazine apps failed, and their unexpected replacements could threaten revenue.

Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of Technology Review, which (full disclosure!) is the publication you are reading now, recently penned an intriguing takedown of the idea that apps are the future of publishing. He’s way too classy to point out that it’s a direct and concrete rebuttal of WIRED editor in chief Chris Anderson’s “The Web is Dead” feature of 2010, but I guess that’s why he keeps thugs like me on the payroll.

So! Apps will take over, claims the editor in chief of one esteemed technology publication, only they didn’t, says the head of another. I call it a draw, and here’s why.

Apps did take over. But not in a way that’s going to make any publisher on Earth happy.

I love reading news in apps, and on a tablet or phone, I definitely spend more time reading news in apps than in the browser. So do millions of other people. Of course, we’re not using the bloated, walled-garden style apps that publishers want us to, even if they’re free with our print subscriptions.

We’re reading in Instapaper. And News.me. And Zite, and Flipboard, and Pocket (formerly Read it Later). If I didn’t have to cruise the web for work, I don’t know if I’d read anything in a browser anymore. And in the case of both Instapaper and News.me, advertisements are stripped from the content I’m consuming. Is that a suicidal thing for a journalist whose income is ultimately dependent on ad revenue? Probably, but I can’t help myself. The reading experience is just so good.

In this era, social – Twitter and Facebook – are how we find things to read. And then we time-shift our consumption of this material. It’s TiVo for the web, which previously demanded that we interrupt our workday or carry around a browser full of open tabs in order to read the things we’re interested in.

Gawker alum and The Awl founder Choire Sicha has argued that these webpage-scraping reading apps are straight-up theft. I don’t know if that’s true, but one thing’s for sure, the more popular they become, the less time we’re all going to spend on webpages, “engaging” with advertisements.

Ultimately, it makes me wonder whether paywalls really are the future of good content. We became accustomed to paying for content with nothing but our attention, and now we’re not even willing to offer that – at least not in a way that is monetizable. (I surely hope it doesn’t come to in-text product placements.) 

Alternately, if publishers think that aggregator apps are a bridge too far – the app equivalent of a Huffington Post that doesn’t even bother to re-write the stories from which it draws – I wonder if it will mean the end of apps like Instapaper.

All I know is that what’s going on with apps and publishing right now doesn’t appear to fit anyone’s narrative.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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