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1,000 Issues of TidBITS: It’s All about Our Readers

This marks our 1,000th issue of TidBITS, and we can barely believe that we’ve arrived at this point, more than 19 years after Tonya and I took our first tentative publishing steps in April 1990. But here we are, going strong and writing and publishing more than ever before.

When we were chatting on our staff list about what to write about issue 1,000, Matt Neuburg jokingly said, “Nothing!” His point was that over the last few years we’ve transitioned our primary publishing unit from the weekly issue to the individual article, with articles going live on the TidBITS Web site as soon as they are ready for public consumption.

Obviously, issues continue to exist; otherwise, there wouldn’t be 1,000 of them. We still send out numbered email issues weekly, assembling them from the articles we’ve published on the Web over the previous week. Plus, we (specifically, Jeff Carlson, Joe Kissell, and I) edit each article again over the weekend and all day Monday so the email issue is polished to best reflect the current state of affairs. And with nearly 31,000 subscribers to our four editions (full text editions in both text and HTML, and announcement editions in text and HTML), more people read TidBITS in email than any other way.

But thanks to the Web and our transition to an article-based model, email is slowly becoming less of a focus than it was in the past, when our Web site was merely an archive of what we sent out in email. Now, individual articles on our site are generally read by several thousand people, and our RSS feed is read by over 15,000 people each week. Sometimes, when an article is linked on an aggregator site like Daring Fireball or Slashdot, it might be seen by 20,000 or more people.

As much fun as it is to pore over these large numbers – and everyone on the TidBITS staff certainly pays attention to them – we’ve started to think about what those numbers mean beyond how subscriber counts and page views can be converted to income. For example, although we do use Google AdSense to display a few ad units on our Web site, Web display advertising will never be a significant source of income for TidBITS. For instance, if we were to make somewhere between $350 and $450 per month from Google based on 250,000 to 350,000 page views, even doubling those numbers wouldn’t bring in a single staffer’s monthly salary. (Most TidBITS-specific income comes from our industry sponsorships, which are about connecting with a community and
aren’t tied to page view numbers.)

No, what’s always been important about TidBITS, and what we increasingly appreciate as Internet behavior seems to devolve ever further, is the quality of our readers. When I hear colleagues at other publications complaining about snide comments or irate email from readers, I thank my lucky stars that we don’t have to deal with that sort of constant drama.

And so it is to our readers that we’re now looking when we try to determine whether we’re doing a good job. Not in raw numbers, though obviously, if very few people use some feature we’ve provided, either the feature isn’t helpful or we’ve done a poor job of alerting readers to its presence.

Instead, we’re looking at the quantity and quality of interactions with readers, and trying to figure out ways we can improve both. For instance, the TidBITS Commenting System that Glenn and Jeff and I designed has been, in our estimation, a huge success. Most articles receive comments, with 10 to 15 comments on an article being entirely common. (The most-commented article so far – with 91 comments in the 30 days we leave commenting open – was my “Have We Entered a Post-Literate Technological Age?”, 2009-08-18).

Even better, the comments often add helpful context or details, ask questions whose subsequent answers extend the utility of the article in unanticipated ways, or point out things that could use revision (we always leave another comment noting when we’ve revised the article to address such an omission). We don’t publish comments in our email issues because the size would become unmanageable, but we show the number of comments on each article and link to them because we want to make it easy for you to read comments and leave your own.

I’m actually not surprised at the quality of comments on our site, since the same has long been true of discussion in TidBITS Talk, where free-ranging conversations about Apple-related topics continue unabated, even after we unveiled the TidBITS Commenting System.

We see the Take Control ebook series as a significant success for TidBITS as well. Obviously, with Take Control, sales are the primary marker of success, and those sales have helped fund many of the back-end changes that have modernized the TidBITS Web site and that are transitioning the Take Control Web site from a hand-coded, organically grown operation to a database-driven site with (coming soon!) user accounts. It is also gratifying that the ebooks have contributed significantly to the incomes of a number of our friends, helping them to remain self-employed, independent writers.

Beyond the money, though, numerous readers have written in with grateful notes, so we know that the ebooks are appreciated by many for their unique qualities. Having readers who buy nearly all our ebooks or who are able to use their Macs much more effectively due to reading them tells us that we are doing a good job. We routinely see an incredibly high quality of question and comment on the books, which in turn allows us to refine and improve the books to reflect what people need to know.

Although we don’t have high follower numbers, the TidBITS Twitter account (it tweets headlines and links to new articles in real-time) continues to grow, closing in on 1,300 followers. But what I appreciate more is observing my search results for @TidBITS in TweetDeck, since I figure that any time someone retweets or mentions a TidBITS article in Twitter and credits us, that article must have been particularly useful or interesting. With Twitter, interpreting retweets as expressions of approval is important; Twitter isn’t a significant source of Web traffic for us yet. Even when O’Reilly Media head Tim O’Reilly posted a tweet linking to my “Have We Entered a Post-Literate Technological Age?”
article, it garnered only a handful of reads that I could track back to Twitter, despite theoretically being seen by Tim’s 975,000 followers.

Other initiatives haven’t been as successful. TipBITS, which allows us and readers to post tips in the right sidebar of our site, gives us a handy means for providing tip-based content, but it hasn’t received many submissions from readers. The interface is slightly more cumbersome than the TidBITS Commenting System, but I suspect the real problem is that people are more intimidated by publishing a standalone item than by leaving a comment. We’ll continue to fiddle with it, but if it ends up containing mainly staff-generated content that Web site visitors find useful, that’s acceptable.

Colin Crawford, previously the president and CEO of Macworld Communications and now with IDG Ventures, recently commented to me via Twitter that “Value is in engaged communities – that’s where media companies need to focus.” Colin has been watching and working in the media industry for a long time, and I think he’s right. That’s why seeing how our readers jumped on the TidBITS Commenting System and – from the business standpoint – seeing how well-received our Take Control ebooks have been has been so satisfying.

We’ve long since abandoned our tongue-in-cheek (and obviously missed) goal of world domination by the year 2000, and it’s clear that TidBITS is unlikely to become the most-read publication on the Internet, or even in the Apple world, since we prefer to focus on the most important news and products, rather than covering every little thing or stirring up attention-getting controversy.

And you know what? That’s fine by me. If the business end of TidBITS via Take Control and TidBITS sponsorships can make it possible for us to continue publishing high-quality content that helps our readership to be more productive and to engage with the rest of the TidBITS community in a constructive fashion, I’m happy.

As much as it seems almost unthinkable to say this, here’s hoping we’re still going strong in another 1,000 issues. Thanks to you, our readers, for making it possible, and thanks too to our sponsors, our editors, our translators, and everyone else who has contributed to TidBITS in some way.

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