Friday, August 7, 2009

When publishing online, is space free?

This week is "Free Week" on This Young Economist. That is, every post this week pertains to the notion of "free." If you haven't caught it, I'm giving away a free lunch for this week's poll. Vote on the poll and sign up for your chance at a free lunch. [link here: if you want to enter, there's a form] If anything else, it will be fun. And yes, I really am giving away $5 (I'll put everyone's entries into a numbered list, and then use's True Random Number Generator to select the winner). Now, onto today's post.

Newspapers are struggling in the face of online competition. It's tempting to claim that an important competitive advantage for online media is that they are not constrained to word limits like traditional newsprint media. Because storing bits and bytes is much cheaper than printing words, online journalists are free to write as much as they want.

That feels like an advantage for online media, but it's not. Traditional newsprint media outlets struggle to retain customers' attention much more than than they struggle to fit the news between the margins. The fundamental scarcity in the media business is time, not paper or storage for words and ideas.

Therefore, I don't think the additional space is a competitive advantage at all. To the contrary, filling additional space is a temptation to be avoided. It's costly to write too much because people have short attention spans. If you incessantly write five-page rants, no one will read past your first page. Cut the five-page post to two pages and readers will return more often.

Regardless of where you publish, this is good writing advice. Don't bombard your readers with too much information. Write straight to the point. Instead of writing a list of principles to follow, I provide three pairs of examples of what to do and what to avoid.

#1: Who wants to read this, when you can read this?
Krugman's greatest asset is that he writes exceptionally. DeLong's biggest weakness is that you can't see his first post without scrolling down.

#2: Wouldn't you rather read this than this?
Greg Mankiw does not waste words. Becker and Posner do. Both are good sources of information, but B&P require more concentration.

#3: Isn't reading this easier than reading this?
Cowen and Tabarrok keep it simple and quote excerpts. Thoma often quotes entire posts from other blogs, supplementing with additional commentary.

These are six of the most popular economics blogs on the Internet. The fact that some succeed and others fail suggests to me that we all have a temptation to write too much. But, readers respect brevity because brevity respects readers. Your audience's time is not free. Keep that in mind the next time you compose an e-mail or write a report.


  1. You have some good points. I agree about the space argument, but there is definitely a MAJOR cost advantage of posting articles online.

    A typical size daily newspaper costs the newspaper company approximately $5.00 a piece to print. Thats without the cost of actually writing the articles etc. Pure production costs.

    Therefore, it's A LOT cheaper to allow your articles to be read by more people online, regardless of size.

  2. Good point. I did some Google searching on the raw materials costs. This article is interesting:

    Maybe I shouldn't have couched my argument in terms of newspaper-printing costs. It is expensive to print the written word. There's no getting around that.

    My point is that I don't think this (large) expense is the primary reason that newspapers are going under. Even if it were priced the same, online media has the distinct advantage that it can publish news as it happens. With a newspaper, you have to wait until the next day.

    That's a competitive advantage that cannot be overcome. As Internet reading becomes easier for consumers, it's going to be harder for newsprint media to compete.


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