I was a “free-rider” for many years when it came to magazines with Internet pages. Long ago, I would copy the free stuff to Word and then print the articles out. More recently, I obtained a Kindle, and I sent the Word files to the Kindle. I hunted among the better magazines, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Harper's, and others. They never gave away the entire content of an actual copy of the magazine, but they'd give you some. It varied. The New Yorker, like the New York Times, will give you a certain number of articles every month. Then you get cut off. The New York Review of Books gives you a few of the articles every month, adding new ones every week or so. You can help yourself to as much as they put up. They're very generous, actually, but then again, the Review contains a lot of material, and most of it isn't free. Harper's is on the stingy side. Their web page lists all of the contents for the month, but most of the articles have a red dot next to them. “Subscribers only.” That way you can see what you're missing. The Atlantic? I think they give it all away, except the archive. The sum of the free stuff from all sources was already more than I could find the time to read. I grabbed new stuff whenever I ran out.
We say “free-rider” in English to describe someone who hovers around the campsite like a wild dog waiting to pick up some scraps. The Germans have a better term, as often happens. They call you a “Schwartzfahrer,” or “black-rider.” You hear the term most often associated with public transportation. Almost everyone has a monthly pass, and they just get on the bus or streetcar and sit down. No one says anything, and usually no one checks. If you have no “Monatspass,” you tell the driver how far you're going and pay in cash. Every so often, though, someone in uniform will get on the bus and check everyone's proof of having paid, either by showing the monthly card or showing the ticket that you got from the driver when you paid the fare. I got the impression that not having either thing was considered a serious breach of the public trust. People shuddered at the thought. No jail time, but they were going to embarrass you and hit you with a substantial fine. My advice if you ever go to Germany is to follow all of the rules. They're very friendly if you do, but their patience quickly runs out if you don't.
The recent general assault on democracy and human decency, and on the free investigative press in particular, made me rethink my casual abuse of those magazines. I began to subscribe to some of them. Right now I have subscriptions to the Atlantic, the New York Times, and Harper's. I am most happy about the Harper's.
I love getting the Harper's Index every month. (“Percentage of Democrats who believe that their personal incomes will rise over the next year: 60.” “Of Republicans who do: 83.”) The May issue had a few very long articles that were fascinating and educational. One by Thomas Frank about the way that populism has been treated in American politics. Another by Ian Baruma about the democracy situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan. And one shedding light on a major scandal that hardly raises an eyebrow in America: the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia. That would be the theft of many billions of dollars from a Malaysian sovereign-wealth fund called 1 Malaysia Development Berhad. The Ringit dropped about thirty percent on that one. Goldman Sachs is heavily implicated.
There are also shorter articles and reviews that often seem to coincide with my own interests. Writers that I like (in May, Walter Lippmann); artists that I love (in May, film maker Jacques Tati). The magazine finishes up with “Findings” on the last page. Findings is a string of random facts strung together in a manner that seems casual but probably isn't. In the May issue, we were told that, “[d]amage to parts of the right frontotemporoinsular lobes that spares the anterior hypothalamus was linked to the emergence of acquired pedophilia.” This sentence appears in the middle of a paragraph, between two totally unrelated sentences. Fascinating, certainly, and interesting, but also a bit disturbing. I am almost motivated to find out more about how someone could go about carefully avoiding such injuries. That would be a terrible malady to come down with by accident.
I also love Harper's because they have a deep respect for tradition. All of the others sold me a “digital” subscription, but Harper's insists on sending me a physical copy. I also have digital access to their archive, but there is no option to save some money by foregoing the physical copy. Something like two out of three actually arrive at my mailbox, due to the vagueries of international mail. I love being able to throw one in my attache case. It's much lighter than my Kindle, and I never leave the house without emergency reading.
My plan is to rotate these subscriptions somehow. Maybe next year I'll drop the Atlantic and subscribe to the New Yorker. I'm almost afraid to subscribe to the New York Review of Books. There are only so many hours in a day, and I don't want to give up history books or novels. I humbly recommend that we all do more to support our quality investigative press. That's the key phrase to remember, the investigation part. It's expensive for a magazine to put something like that together. Most of the typical websites just have a bunch of “content providers” sitting at home terminals turning out short articles full of typos about things that they are familiar with. Think of that Ian Baruma article about Chinese democracy. Harper's sent him to Hong Kong and Taiwan for that one, and he interviewed numerous scholarly individuals whom he has known personally for decades. That kind of thing costs money.
So I don't mind paying, within limits.