What Makes The Athletic Great

In recent times I’ve bought subscriptions to two online media outlets – The Ken and The Athletic. I’d subscribed to the Ken a year ago, and was happy enough with the hit rate of their pieces (I’d find one in two pieces insightful) that I extended my subscription for three years earlier this year.

And since I did that extension, the product has been disappointing. They lost half their team to The Morning Context, a breakaway (and similar) outlet. They decided to expand in South East Asia, and since I have little interest in articles about that reason (at least not enough to pay for the writing), that automatically means less content that interest me. In some senses their quality is slipping. All this together means that I find less than one in five articles in The Ken compelling, and with the frequency of their publication (one article every weekday) I’m pretty disappointed.

Maybe it has to do with Marie Kondo’s popularity, or interest in behavioural economics research about the paradox of choice, but organisations are starting to make minimalism and limitations in inventory a virtue. The Ken started with the aim of “exactly one long form article every day”.

Having less choice, and being minimalistic, is good when this limited choice fits the appetite of the customer. However, if the choice isn’t particularly relevant, then minimalism becomes a bug rather than a feature – the customer doesn’t find what she is looking for and goes on to another outlet.

In that sense, I quite like the model of The Athletic, which I bought a year-long subscription to a year back. The Athletic’s model is just the opposite – massively high volumes with a highly curated personal feed. And maybe they’ve got their curation right, in terms of getting customers to click on the right kind of tags at the time of sign up, but so far I’ve found at least two useful articles on their site every single day since I turned up. And that’s insane value for money!

And that is despite me being interested in exactly one out of the nine sports that The Athletic covers (it’s mostly US-centric, and I don’t follow American sport at all. However I guess I’ll find it useful when I have to follow any controversy in American sport). And I’m interested in a subset of that – I follow one league (English Premier League) and games played by a handful of clubs in that league.

If I compare The Athletic to Netflix (both subscription-driven media outlets with large volumes of content), where the former scores is in its discoverability.

Maybe sport is easier compared to movies/tv shows in order to understand someone’s interests. Maybe it is that The Athletic, right up front, asked me to identify which sports, leagues, authors and teams I’m interested in (Netflix never made an attempt to do that). Maybe it is that The Athletic, with loads of fresh content every single day, is able to serve my preferences far easier than Netflix.

In any case, reading the Athletic makes me think that if I were to run a media outlet some day, I would want to follow that kind of a model – produce lots of content, so that lots of people will be interested in buying subscriptions, and then hope to use superior algorithms to make sure that people can see what they want and not have to cut through too much noise in order to do so!

News

I wake up early on weekdays nowadays, so go the first two hours of the day without really knowing what is happening in the world. As you might know, I’m on a social media break, so that source of news is cut off. And it’s only around 7 am by when a copy of the Business Standard gets delivered to my door.

Until last month, a copy of the Deccan Herald would arrive at home as well, but I stopped it after I found it to be largely useless. A lot of stories in that newspaper were written as they might have been 20 or 30 years ago. There was little distinction between reporting and analysis and opinion. A lot of news couldn’t be simply consumed without the accompanying (and sometimes patronising) opinion.

The Business Standard, which I started reading in 2005, is still a very good paper. The editorials continue to be first-rate (though their quality had dipped in the 2011-14 period). The analysis pieces and columns cover a variety of topics that simply don’t make it to social media (since they aren’t really “sensational”). And the newspaper is “crisp” and quickly tells you what’s going on in India.

For two years, when I lived in London, I lived without a daily newspaper, and it was a struggle. Online newspapers have simply not been able to provide the same kind of product as offline newspapers. And the reason is that online newspapers are “flat” – all the contextualising and prioritising that a dead-tree paper can do is completely absent in the online version.

In a dead-tree newspaper, you know how important a piece of news is based on the page it appears, the size of the headline, the size of the column and so on. Based on where it appears, you know if it is news or analysis or opinion. In case it is opinion, you can easily see who has written it before you “click through” (start reading it). You can easily how big a piece is (and how much of your time it will take) before deciding to invest time in it.

All this is absent from an online newspaper. Check out, for example, the homepage of the Business Standard, that I so fulsomely praised earlier in this post.

It is impossible to know what’s the important stuff here. If I have only five minutes to read, I don’t know what to focus on. I don’t know which of this is opinion and which is news. Before I click through, I don’t know how big a piece is or who has written it or if it has been syndicated.

Unless the link has come from a qualified source (such as Twitter) I don’t know much about it, and so don’t know how to consume it. This might explain to you why a lot of online news sources are losing revenues to the likes of Google or Facebook – the latter do the important job of putting the news in context!

Finally, I’m glad I now consume news only once a day (from the physical paper). Sometimes, what is news intra-day would have ceased to be news by nightfall. So when you consume news at a reasonable interval (such as daily), what comes to you is “qualified” real stuff. A piece of news should have been important enough for a day to make it to the next day’s newspapers. And once a day is also a reasonable interval to get to know of what is happening in the world.

The problem with online media

… is that there is no ending. There is no sense of having “finished the newspaper”.

And there is no context. You see the homepage of a major newspaper, and you see a bunch of headlines leading to links. Occasionally there are section headers that tell you which broad section of the newspaper they come from (news/opinion), but that context is usually far inferior to what you see in print.

So addressing the issues one by one, the first “issue” with online media which no website (AFAIK) can solve is that online news is an online process (apologies for the pun) – as news comes in it needs to be displayed on the website, without really waiting for “editions”. This means there is a conflict between “importance” and “recency” – what kind of news do you show near the top and in bold? Stuff that came in latest or stuff that you think is important?

This means that you need a “live editor” (might be replaced by a bot very soon) all the time who takes a call on what comes on top. Yet, if I’m checking the news after a day, what might be “important” for me is very different from what might be important for you who is checking the news after half an hour. You most definitely want the latest stuff, while I possibly want to know everything that’s happened in the day. And a simple news website cannot cater to both.

The other problem is the lack of context and information before clicking through. In an offline newspaper, there is a large amount of information you have before you “click through” to an article. There is the page it appears on – if you are a regular reader of the paper, you know the kind of articles that appear on each page.

There is the author – you have most definitely built a model over time on which authors to not miss and whom to avoid. There is the length of the article. And there are articles that appear around it. And all these put together provide you enough information on whether it might be worth reading the content on an article.

Most of this is missing in online media, where you need to make your decision to read on headlines. Which can sometimes be click-baity and not all that informative. And so the chances of regret having clicked through to an article is high. Which means that you need some sort of external cues to make you want to click through and read an article.

And so you start consuming news through social media – articles that your friends recommend, with possibly some more information and context on what it’s about. This information and context would have in an offline world been given to you by the newspaper itself.

And so as you consume more and more news from social media, you have the usual problems of echo chambers, and not even glancing through the headlines of news you don’t like (notice how a traditional offline newspaper makes you go through most headlines, whether you like it or not!).

Finally, in an online newspaper there is no concept of having “finished” the paper, of having consumed all the news. As you keep consuming news, you find new pieces of information being thrown at you. Not knowing when to stop, you simply give up!

Buying, Trying and Sizing

The traditional paradigm of apparel purchase has been to try and then buy. You visit a retail store, pick what you like, try them out in the store’s dressing rooms and then buy a subset. In this paradigm, it is okay for sizing to not be standardised, since how the garment actually fits on you plays a larger part in your decision making than how it is supposed to fit on you.

With the coming of online retail, however, this paradigm is being reversed, since here you first buy, and then try, and then return the garment if it doesn’t fit properly. This time, the transaction cost of returning a garment is much higher than in the offline retail case.

So I hope that with online retail gaining currency in apparel purchase, manufacturers will start paying more attention to standardised sizing, and make sure that a garment’s dimensions are exactly what is mentioned on the online retailer’s site.

The question is who should take the lead on enforcing this. It cannot be the manufacturer, for had they been concerned already about standardised sizing, they would’ve implemented it already. So far the retailer has only been an intermediary (a “pipe”, as Sangeet would put it).

However, with the transaction cost of failed transactions being borne by the retailers, and these transaction costs being rather high in online retail, I expect the likes of Amazon and Myntra to take the lead in ensuring that sizing is standardised, perhaps by pushing up the ease of search of garments from manufacturers who already practice such sizing (these retailers have sufficient data to measure this easily).

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Given history, I don’t expect retailers to collaborate in coming up this a standard. So assuming each major online retailer comes up with its own standard, the question is if it will start off being uniform or if it will converge to a common standard over time.

I also wonder if the lead in standardising sizes will be taken by private brands of the online retailers, since they have the most skin in the game in terms of costs, before other manufacturers will follow suit.

In any case, I trust that soon (how “soon” that soon is is questionable) I’ll be able to just look at the stated sizing on a garment and buy it (if it’s of my liking) without wondering how well it’ll fit me.

Available only on flipkart

This mornings mint has a full page advertisement on the front page announcing the launch of the moto x phone in India. The ad mentions that the phone is available in India exclusively on flipkart the online retailer. The question is if this is a good idea.

While it is true that online retail offers the best costs and prices – thanks largely in part to the massive savings on real estate and inventory costs, I’m not sure if we are still thee at a stage where retail can be online only. In fact people like to touch and feel the stuff that they’re buying. Especially when it comes to big ticket purchases such as a phone. Without giving people the opportunity to do so – shops won’t carry the dummy model unless they’re also selling it, at a good margin – I’m not sure how many will want to make the jump and buy.

On a related note I saw a report last week, again in mint, talking about pushback from offline retailers and malls to the online retail phenomenon. This brings into focus how retail will evolve going forward since people now have a low cost (low inventory, zero real estate) option for making their purchases. We’re already seeing some “progress” in that direction where people go to malls and high streets to browse and get a touch and feel and then buy online where the prices are lower.

This points to one direction in which retail might evolve – soon stores in malls and high streets might be set up with the primary purpose of building the brand and letting customers get a touch and feel. Any sales from these stores for the brands will only be a bonus – the primary purpose being to let people know what is out there and to let them touch and feel and experience it.

If this were tO happen we can expect malls and high streets to move to more brand stores and less multi brand stores – unless the latter can somehow either match the cost and price structure of online or get paid for purely providing the experience to the customers.

Either ways we can expect the overall demand for retail real estate space to come down in the next few years. If there are any malls or retail real estate firms which are listed its time to short them. Or by hedging against them by going long on online retail.

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