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April 4, 2012

The ethics of “reading it later”


The moral quandary of reading online has grown murkier with the increased popularity of “read-later” applications. These platforms allow readers to save articles from different sites and blogs in one place, for reading at a later time.

The much picked-over issues of news aggregation are known to most people in the digital publishing industry, but Jon Mitchell on Read Write Web suggests that the next point of contention will be “read-later” apps.  This because:

“…there’s definitely something worth arguing about for people who publish on the Web. Read-later apps are competition for noisy, ad-ridden websites. They represent a simple fact: Users hate our sites.”

Apps such as Readability and Instapaper remove an article from its original setting, allowing the reader to alter the format to their liking, free from clutter (read: ads). They can also access the content on their computer, smart phone or iPad at a time of their choosing.  According to Mitchell, the problem here is that Readability now wants their subscribers to provide a revenue stream to the original site.  Yet a new business model for publishers to deal with.

“[Readability] provided cleaned-up Web views of articles, and in order to get the full-fledged service, it asked users to subscribe for a small monthly fee. Readability would collect money on publishers’ behalf, and if they signed up, that money would be distributed to them proportionate to the number of articles saved in Readability.”

In exchange, Readability and its users would control the reading experience and through that, the value of the content.  What’s more, once re-formated, there would be no link to the original site.

“Publishers shouldn’t settle for that. Even if Readability’s experiment works and makes publishers a few bucks, it’s not a future of its own. Sites that want to matter (and profit) in the read-later age have to provide value that goes beyond articles that can be scraped and saved.”

Mitchell has some suggestions for web publishers, to prevent the movement of their readers to Readability, such as “dynamic content”, multimedia and live experiences.

It seems as if there’s no point in expecting site loyalty simply based on editorial quality, although that is of course vital. As Mitchell points out, studies done by the original app in this debate, Read it Later, indicate that readers want to dictate when and where they read content.  This graph from their blog shows when people with iPhones read articles saved with the Read it Later app.

This graph shows that that there are four spikes, at

“6am – Early morning, breakfast
9am – The morning commute, start of the work day
5pm – 6pm – End of the work day and the commute home
8pm – 10pm – Couch time, prime time, bed time”

People want content to be accessible at the times that best fit their day. If they can help it, they won’t be staring at their computer, but rather lying on the couch with their iPhone. Online publishers need to assess whether their content is delivered in the best way possible, formatted for clean, easy use on portable devices, built with readers in mind.

Of course, the above reading “spikes” probably also indicate when people are picking up their paperbacks, the original read-later and read-where-you-like device.  So there’s always hope.


Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.