When Steve Brill and two other media lifers revealed their new company's plan to help papers charge for some content online, they got some things right. They certainly seemed poised for a seat on the runaway train toward new pay walls.
But the first announcement from the company, called Journalism Online, also misrepresented the good old days. "Advertising alone can't support quality journalism," Mr. Brill said, "and the truth is, it never has."
Really? It's true that readers have paid for home delivery and newsstand copies, but subscription fees for one often failed to cover the newsprint and distribution required, much less significantly pad profits.
Newspapers made most of their money -- huge, enviable gobs of it, actually -- because they held a chokehold on their markets. There weren't many other ways for advertisers to get in front of their potential customers. There weren't many options when it came to classified listings for jobs, housing and stuff for sale, either. And for what it's worth, readers didn't have a ton of other sources for news.
Newspapers' jumbo profit margins depended on ad rates inflated by near monopolies. Now that newspapers' quasi-monopolies are shattered, the happy fantasy that readers were underwriting in-depth, quality journalism has been shattered as well. Readers weren't paying their local papers to post reporters in London or even Washington. They wanted the basic news and the ads -- things they can now often get free.
Maybe Brill and Co.'s Journalism Online meant to say online advertising can't support quality online journalism. That much is certainly true, if quality requires the kind of headcount, salaries and time for which newspapers used to be able to pay. And that's why almost everyone wants newspapers to find ways to collect new revenue online. Just because papers do seem to need significant circulation revenue from the web, however, doesn't mean they can get it.