You may have heard this one before: well-meaning web developers announce a long-shot initiative to help compensate writers. Media blogs hail the model as potentially revolutionary. Such was the path of lauded-but-failed efforts such as TypePad’s 2008 Journalist Bailout Program, which received plenty of attention upon announcement but now only yields a 404 page. So it’s reasonable to take a skeptical look at Readability’s just-announced system to compensate writers through a monthly bundled subscription fee. But in this case, the well-meaning developers may be on to something.
Developed by Arc90, Readability is one of the most useful tools on the web, a browser bookmarklet that strips away all the cruft from a page--blinking Flash ads, garish designs, unreadable text--and allows you to view the content in distraction-free glory. What results is an eBook-like view of any writing you’ll find on the web. Publishers and bloggers have a complicated relationship with tools like Readability--they often appreciate the functionality but resent that it strips away those annoying, yet money-generating, distractions from online content. Perhaps in response to such criticisms, Readability has announced a pay-what-you-want monthly subscription that pays 70% of the revenue back to the writers whose work you’ve read using the bookmarklet.
What Readability proposes is not going to reverse the media’s declining fortunes single-handedly, and it’s unlikely to make bedroom bloggers rich, but there are a few reasons to give it the benefit of the doubt:
1) While it’s a geek-centric tool, the Readability bookmarklet is designed for people who value quality content and user experiences. These tend to be the same people who buy an iPad because it’s a superior way to read RSS feeds, who pay a monthly fee to long-form archiving service Instapaper to support developer Marco Arment, and spend a few bucks a month in an endless quest to find the perfectly-designed mobile Twitter client. This tends to be the same audience curating and following long-form writing aggregators such as Longreads and Longform. It’s a niche audience, but one that’s willing to pay for a quality product.
2) The Readability subscription allows users to support a variety of online content with one simple payment. Currently, if you want to compensate your favorite bloggers, you have to go to their sites and make a one-time donation or click on some tacky ad banner. By bundling the content payments into one monthly fee, Readability’s plan allows users to bundle and compensate their own personalized news network.
3) They’ve got some big brains with proven track records on their advisory team, including Instapaper’s Arment, former Harper’s Magazine editor and web content visionary Paul Ford, and highly influential web developer Jeffrey Zeldman. While publishers flail around with monetization schemes, charging a premium for iPad apps that offer less functionality than their web or print counterparts, folks like Ford and Arment are successfully bringing quality content to multiple platforms, and creating apps and editorial content that people are willing to pay for.
There are plenty of questions: How will payment percentages be determined and doled out? Will publishers get a glimpse into Readability’s accounting? And is a payment system built around a geek-centric tool most likely to reward tech and geek-focused online content? (Probably.) Time will tell, but as it stands now, Readability’s initiative is legitimately promising, and has the potential to modestly succeed where previous efforts have failed.