Skip to Content

The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

Much as it pains me to use the Spectator’s pages to plug another publication, I can’t help being impressed by the Economist’s invention of a new kind of subscription service.

10 February 2010

12:00 AM

10 February 2010

12:00 AM

Much as it pains me to use the Spectator’s pages to plug another publication, I can’t help being impressed by the Economist’s invention of a new kind of subscription service.

Much as it pains me to use the Spectator’s pages to plug another publication, I can’t help being impressed by the Economist’s invention of a new kind of subscription service.

Like many people, you probably enjoy the Economist, but just not quite enough to read it every week. Perhaps you simply can’t make time in your busy schedule to learn more about the prospects for electoral reform in Turkmenistan. Or possibly, like me, you know you should know more about Canadian proposals for banking reform, but you are just a bit too easily — ooh, hold on a sec, Deal or No Deal starts in 20 minutes.


So, for people like us, what the Economist has created is perfect. It’s a kind of Subscription Lite. All you do is register at www.economistdirect.com and leave details of your credit card and mobile telephone number. Every Thursday they send you a text message telling you what’s in the forthcoming issue — whether it’s a leading article on Apple or a cut-out-and-keep guide to the Glass-Steagall Act. In the first case, you simply reply to the text message with the word ‘Buy’ and they charge you £2.75 and post you a copy to arrive the next day. In the second instance, you simply do nothing, pay nothing and have the weekend off.

The previous subscription model demanded that you either commit to 50 issues a year or pay the full cover price at the newsstand — an all-or-nothing choice. Here, the use of text messaging has created a happy compromise.

A similar approach has already transformed the airline industry. Previously you chose between polar opposites — you enjoyed free champagne and private lounges and paid a fortune, or else you paid a lower price but flew in a rust bucket. In short-haul flying this bipolarity has long gone — the basic service is fairly constant, but you can pay anything from £20 to £500 for the same journey depending on how inflexible you are on dates and the specific extras you want.

What’s interesting about this is that, if you consider two large service industries in which government is heavily involved — health and education — we find ourselves still stuck with the all-or-nothing model. You either bankrupt yourself to go private or else pay nothing but sacrifice all choice. It is as though Britain’s food retail sector contained only Harrods Food Hall and Lidl with nothing in between. It’s this absurd bifurcation which rightly incenses Toby Young when he weighs up his options for educating his children.

But can technology and customisation play the same role in transforming the provision of education or health as they have in travel? And would this be divisive? This is the question which faces those people who have staked their reputations on the technological transformation of public services.

Let’s take one example. What if you could go online and pre-book a specific time for a GP appointment by paying a supplement of £20. Wouldn’t this be unfair? Interestingly, research from the US suggests that, whereas the biggest deterrent to women visiting the doctor is a charge, the biggest deterrent to men is a wait of 30 minutes or longer. Since at present the great majority of GP visits are made by women, you might argue that the present inflexible arrangement is already deeply divisive. It discriminates against men.


Show comments
Close