Brill: Bring Back an Old Business Model for New Media

Q&A: The Entrepreneur Discusses His Latest Venture to Help Newspapers Charge for Online Content

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NEW YORK ( -- Steven Brill has gone public with Journalism Online, the company that he and two other media veterans are starting to help newspapers and magazines charge for their content online. That prompted a flood of interest -- but also questions from all quarters in media.

Steven Brill
Steven Brill
Would a pay wall restricting access to some newspaper content really work now? Aren't newspapers really hamstrung by the loss of monopolies that once gave them huge pricing power?

MediaWorks grabbed a few minutes with Mr. Brill, who founded Court TV and the magazines American Lawyer and Brill's Content, to hear his answers to some of those questions.

MediaWorks: Faced with the pay wall you're talking about, why won't readers just find the same content elsewhere for free -- or go without it entirely?

Steven Brill: When you say pay wall you make it sound as if it's a binary thing, either it's all free or it all is behind a wall. What the most successful publishers of online content who've charged for it have been able to do is exactly what publishers of magazines and newspapers have been doing for a hundred years -- and that is have a mix of advertising and circulation revenue.

And what we intend to do is offer publishers the ability to have that mix. And some may charge for every single piece of their content -- I doubt that that's ever going to happen. I think some will offer samples the way The Financial Times does, you know, three or four articles for free and then they start to charge you in a given month; some will offer the first hundred words or the lead paragraphs for free and then you'll have to pay more.

But we think this is going to be much better for advertisers and for the advertising-revenue model than the current one, which is everything is free, everything is fungible, the CPMs [the costs to reach 1,000 viewers] are just falling into the gutter because there's just unlimited inventory.

Now the answer to the other question: Why do I think people will pay for it? Well, 50 million people today paid for a newspaper. The idea that people will pay for content is hardly some new trailblazing idea. What's trailblazingly stupid is the idea that you should just give everything away even though you're paying people good money to produce it and to report it.

MediaWorks: It's a fair point in print ...

Mr. Brill: Well, why isn't it a fair point online?

MediaWorks: I can get a lot of this stuff free online. When newspapers break news, say North Korea fires a missile ...

Mr. Brill: We'll get the fact that North Korea fired a missile for free. Will you get the story behind that fact, and the analysis behind that fact from skilled reporters that The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal or the L.A. Times pay to do that reporting -- will you get that for free? Will you expect to get that for free? I think the answer is no. And I think it's insane to keep offering it for free. What doubles the insanity is to offer it for free online while you try and charge for it at the newsstand.

And we will have strength in numbers. The whole idea is lots of publications are going to do this at the same time. They're going to charge different prices, they're going to have different methods, they're going to have different amounts of stuff. But I think what you're going to see is a sea change back to an old tradition, and an old business model, which is that quality content has a cost, and the cost of that content is shared by the readers who read it and the advertisers who want to reach the readers.

MediaWorks: Isn't the problem here that newspapers no longer provide a unique service to marketers? Isn't the real problem that newspapers have lost their quasi-monopolies?

Mr. Brill: That's the real problem with the advertising model per se. Suppose you were a publisher of a fashion magazine. Suppose every day a new fashion magazine was launched at newsstand. Soon what you'd realize is there's a whole lot of inventory and the same demand. That is what's going on online. There is infinite inventory. ...

That produces a need, an exacerbated need for publishers to go back to their old model, which is "Part of my revenue comes from advertisers, and part of it comes from the people who read the stuff." The advertising community should welcome this change, because they're going to get back to having differentiated readers.

The CPMs that The Wall Street Journal is able to get for its advertising online are higher than other newspapers' because advertisers know that people have paid for the product. Just the way those of us in the newspaper and magazine business for years used to make fun of shoppers, the newspapers that were handed out for free.

MediaWorks: Can you prevent websites, aggregators, scrapers from picking up the headline and essentially lead of any story? Isn't that going to always be fair game?

Mr. Brill: You fall into a little bit of a trap if you fall into the fair-use legal question. No publisher has any real good argument against fair use if it's giving the stuff away for free themselves. Because how can you say, "Google, you can't have it for free" if you're giving it away for free?

The material that's going to be charged for probably isn't the headline or a summary; it's the story or some stories or some parts of some stories.

The point is that if you have a large group of publishers -- and we think we're going to have a very large group of publishers -- negotiating with the dominant search engine or the two or three dominant search engines, at least you're starting to get some parity in that negotiation. Today, if the L.A. Times says to Google, "We don't want you using our stuff," Google can say "Well, fine, we'll just get it somewhere else."

MediaWorks: Anything surprise you in the reaction to your announcement?

Mr. Brill: We didn't intend to put this release out yesterday, but there was so much interest as we started to talk to publishers about it. We thought that we'd spend weeks in the debate about "Should I or shouldn't I start charging?" Everybody's past that debate. It's all about when and how.

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