Once, our favourite radio DJs, magazine editors and art gallery curators advised us on the music, writing and design that might interest us. Now, we can increasingly pay for computers to crunch our tastes through complex algorithms and tell us what to like. Joanna Mathers reports

The world was delivered through the mailbox in an unassuming envelope. It was found between crisp magazine pages, in strange, unsettling and remarkable images. In the pre-internet age, National Geographic was more than just a magazine to subscribe to — it was a portal to another universe.

National Geographic inhabited Marion Moffit's teenage world; her parents subscribed to the photographic journal in the 1960s. Remarkably free from the political judgment of the era, the magazine was treasured as a document of the exotic, the alarming, the forbidden, and the beautiful.

"I loved it — it had such amazing photos," says Moffit. "And although there wasn't much writing, it always seemed so informative. Our home in Howick was filled with copies."

The internet has opened up the world to such an extent that it's hard to imagine the effect which National Geographic had on generations of readers.


And other subscription-based magazines and newspapers worked their magic — Reader's Digest, Woman's Weekly, the New Zealand Herald and others gave readers escape, information and inspiration.

But times have changed, and with it the popularity of print-based subscriptions. Fewer of us rush to our mailbox for our hit of news or entertainment — it's now served straight to our hands via smart phone or tablet.

Moffit exemplifies the changes in how we engage with subscription-based content.

The nearly 60-year-old, who teaches seniors to use Apple products at Mac Senior Net in Remuera and Howick, is registered to music-steaming service Spotify.

"I like Coldplay, and cruisey music like Michael Buble — I listen to it on my iPad."

She still subscribes to some print magazines, but she also pays to have Swipe iPhone Mag delivered to her inbox every month.

The nature of what we subscribe to — pixels instead of paper — is not the only thing that has changed.

The way content is created is also new. In many cases, what we listen to on music streaming sites or view in online design magazines isn't chosen by a DJ, or curated by an editor or designer.

Instead, it's formulated by complex algorithms that analyse our tastes and formulate bespoke content based on an intricate play of numbers and variables.

Online dating sites may use algorithms to narrow down the odds of finding our perfect match, computer programmes can tell you how to arrange your furniture and what colour combinations to paint on your walls, and when we search for a story on our favourite website it will make suggestions about other items of interest.

When it comes to how we subscribe, it's goodbye National Geographic, hello Brave New World.

United States-based

Pandora is at the vanguard of algorithm-driven digital music services. Founded in 2000 through the Music Genome Project, in which a team of music analysts studied and collected musical details on thousands of tracks, Pandora uses complex algorithms to compile bespoke "radio stations" based on individual tastes.

A registration and subscription-based service, Pandora began operating in New Zealand last year. It has 78 million active users worldwide, including 187,000 registered to the service in New Zealand.

Its co-founder (or "chief evangelist" as he is referred to in Pandora publicity) Tim Westergren arrives on our shores tomorrow, and will talk about the service at the Nathan Club in Britomart tomorrow night.

He spoke exclusively to the Herald on Sunday this week about the way Pandora creates exclusive musical selections for registered users.

Westergren, an accomplished musician, prefers people not think of Pandora as a computer-activated radio service.

"There are humans behind Pandora — it's more like a geeky record store clerk," he says.

But he acknowledges the Pandora algorithms — developed through the information gathered by the music analysts — create musical selections based on artist or song selection. Listeners can give positive or negative feedback on songs chosen by the service; this is taken into account when Pandora selects future songs.

Westergren says that rather than the musical selection being dictated by the computer, the interface between computer and user is a "two way relationship".

"Pandora is defined by the control the users have. It puts the power back into the consumer's hands."

Although Pandora has a subscription-based service (this is advertising free) Westergren says this accounts for only two per cent of users.

"These are the high-end users, the music geeks. The subs make up only a small part of our business."

Greg Whitham is the head of digital at advertising agency Ogilvy and a keen Pandora user. He feels that registration to Pandora helps narrow down the almost endless music options that listeners have access to over the internet.

"It's a filter," he says. "It removes the conundrum of choice and lets something else make your musical decisions for you.

"We have access to more music than we have time to listen to, so it's great to have a service where your musical decisions are made for you."

Also recently landed in New Zealand, iHeartRadio is owned by the APN media group that owns the Herald on Sunday and eight commercial radio stations.

Launched with much fanfare in conjunction with a free Lorde concert last September, the service gives registered and subscribed users a recommendation service (like Pandora) and a radio network service that aggregates content from hundreds of radio stations and other media sources.

The platform is free, but users must register and advertising runs between songs.

"There are more than 150,000 registered users in New Zealand," says the Radio Network's general manager of products and digital, Carolyn Luey.

They key to good subscription-based service lies in understanding the audience, says Kursten Shalfoon, chief marketing officer of APN. Photo / NZ Herald
The impact of the digital revolution on the sales of printed media has been well documented.

The immediacy of free information online has had a deleterious effect on traditional media, and print subscriptions and sales worldwide have plunged dramatically in some overseas markets.

Online paywalls and meters arose as a result of these dramatic declines — these digital age subscriptions give readers exclusive content in exchange for a regular fee.

Catherine Strong is a senior lecturer in the school of journalism at Massey University. She says subscription-based online content has been around for a while.

"In the late 1990s many newspapers in particular in the USA were trying to find some way to make online news profitable."

One of the most successful early users of the paywall system was the Wall Street Journal.

"It was one of the first to initiate a paywall, at least 15 years ago, and indications are that it has a large online subscription base and is making money from it," says Strong.

"The key reason for its success is probably that it is a specialist newspaper. Its reputation for accurate financial and business news has probably helped its online subscriptions."

Locally, the niche nature of the National Business Review also has helped ensure some success with its subscription-only online content.

NBR technology editor Chris Keall says it has 2,800 individual paid subscribers, and 345 businesses and organisations subscribing.

The sub-based service attracts a certain type of reader. "If you shell out money to subscribe, then by definition you're a serious business reader."

The paywall system is proving increasingly profitable for the publication, he says.

"An increasing percentage of NBR's revenue comes from online subscriptions. And when the reader's paying, it makes for better copy in the — same manner that subscriber-funded channels like HBO tend to deliver smarter shows than ad-funded free-to-air networks on TV."

Consumer magazine is another niche publication that decided to introduce an online paywall.

Consumer New Zealand chief executive Sue Chetwin says the paywall was introduced about 10 years ago.

"Two-thirds of our members have access to our online services. The paid content includes test results, more products and more specs."

She says the Consumer system model has been successful.

"People have welcomed the paid-for content. It is offered at a reasonable price, and the subscription model is very flexible. People are happy to pay for the services we offer."

The prospect of the paywall is looming large over New Zealand's mainstream print media.

Heavy-hitters APN and Fairfax have been taking a "you go first" approach to introducing it on their popular news sites.

APN has taken the first leap into the unknown, announcing it will introduce metered content on the nzherald.co.nz site this year.

Its chief marketing officer, Kursten Shalfoon, says the key to the success of any subscription-based online service lies in understanding the audience.

"There are two distinct users of the APN website — the infrequent users who visit the site when big events and news stories are occurring, and heavily-engaged users who love the content and the brand."

The metered system will let the once- or twice-a-day user view some content for free; the more involved readers can take a paid subscription.

Shalfoon says paid-for content shouldn't be viewed as undesirable.

"Our readers have been paying for content for many years: Each time they bought the newspaper."

Catherine Strong says people who subscribe to paid online content are keen to get their news from the source, rather than through other social media and digital outlets.

"There are also people who write blogs or newsletters who want the information first hand to repackage it to disperse to others.

"And there is always a group of people who want to gain information that others don't have, so they know what is going on in their area before the rest of the neighbours do."

There is another more surprising group prepared to pay for content.

"Students who may be on a tight budget seem to be more willing to pay for news sites than older people, even news-oriented older people," Strong says.

"This is probably because students are used to buying online and already have some online payment system set up. They pay for apps, music, clothes online, so news is just an extension of this."

But Strong says journalism experts are concerned that lack of access to free, well-researched and written articles could mean more people getting news third-hand from less reputable internet sources.

"These sites filter out what they consider extraneous news, and print only what they think their particular readers want. And these are not usually seasoned journalists making the decision. Often these stories are the most salacious or the most odd, not necessarily the most significant.

"From a point of view of an informed democracy, this is a worry. Many young adults already lack media literacy skills and don't assess the original source of the information that forms their opinions."

Whichever way the wind blows when it comes to the future of subscription-based online content, there's no denying that people are still happy to hand over the decisions about what and how they interact with content to someone else.

Ogilvy's Greg Whitham says this ongoing desire to have someone else make decisions about content for them is paradoxical because of the nature of the digital age we live in.

"The internet promised to be a democratising force, to allow people to choose what they wanted to engage without the interference of others. The problem is that the democratisation of choice has given us too much choice.

"Services like Pandora mean we don't have to decide; it lets people put their faith in someone else."

Lizzie Marvelly gets most of her news and music online. Photo / Michael Craig

Real entertainment in a digital world

In the 1990s, Auckland singer Lizzie Marvelly ran to the letter box every day after school, hoping her magazines had arrived.

Her room was plastered with posters extracted from their pages — pop stars such as Spice Girls, Hanson, and Black Eyed Peas peered down from the walls.

Her monthly subscriptions were a highlight of her early teenage years, Girlfriend and TV Hits providing her with a steady diet of gossip and entertainment news.

Twenty years on, the singer now gets that news from Twitter.

And though she still loves magazines and CDs, she finds the digital world equally compelling.

"The internet is where people are congregating these days."

Marvelly is registered with iHeartRadio, and enjoys the convenience and flexibility of the service.

"I like how you can type in an artist's name or the name of a song you like and have a personalised playlist created for you."

And though she acknowledges there is something special about having your work in a physical form ("there's something amazing about holding your own CD in your hand"), she doesn't feel listening to music online detracts from her enjoyment of the finished product.

"Listening to my tracks on the internet is really no different to me than hearing them on a CD. "It still makes me feel really excited."