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April 15, 2009, 11:51 p.m.

Steve Brill wants to try charging for content online… again

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In the media industry, the name Steven Brill tends to bring back a lot of memories. The founder of CourtTV and Brill’s Content, he went on to create a new media entity called Inside, which was staffed with writers from Fortune and other leading publications. But the venture eventually folded. As more and more content moved online, Brill later tried to create a venture known as Contentville, which he envisioned as a sort of one-stop shop for content of all kinds — text, photos, video, audio — which publishers and distributors could offer through his online store.

Sound familiar? It should, because Brill is trying to revive the idea through a new project called Journalism Online, which he and his new partners announced this week. But the new venture has an unusual twist that Contentville — which eventually shut down due to a lack of revenue — did not.

Whatever you think of his idea, it’s clear that Brill still has some pretty high-powered contacts in media: one of his partners is Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and one of the guys who decided to charge money for the WSJ online, something virtually every other newspaper publisher dreams of doing someday. The third partner is Leo Hindery, a former telecom industry executive. Also on the board of advisors are former senior U.S. attorney David Boies and former Solicitor General Ted Olsen. The news release says that Journalism Online LLC will:

“…quickly facilitate the ability of newspaper, magazine and online publishers to realize revenue from the digital distribution of the original journalism they produce.”

How will it do this? Brill promises a four-point Marshall Plan for news, including a password-protected site where publishers can put their content and users can buy “annual or monthly subscriptions, day passes, and single articles from multiple publishers.” But it’s the third point in this plan that raises some interesting questions: the release says that the venture will “negotiate wholesale licensing and royalty fees with intermediaries such as search engines and other websites that currently base much of their business models on referrals of readers to the original content on newspaper, magazine and online news websites.”

To the untrained ear, that sounds a lot like Brill and his team — including a former Solicitor General and one of the top government attorneys in the U.S. — are planning to go after Google and Yahoo News, and pretty much anyone else who is using content from the venture’s partners (although it’s not clear whether Journalism Online has any partners as yet). This is exactly the same kind of rhetoric that Associated Press has been using about Google and other sites that it claims have been using its content in unwelcome ways. Are we going to see a wholesale legal push from content companies? No wonder Clay Shirky said that Brill was creating a news version of the RIAA (Jeff Jarvis says it reminds him of the New Century Network, a notorious newspaper industry train wreck from the early 1990s).

Legal issues aside, will Brill’s plan work? While some readers might be willing to pay the $15-a-month fee that he says he is thinking about charging for an all-you-can-eat subscription, one of the biggest challenges to any such scheme is to get enough partners on board that it makes such a payment worthwhile. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem in a way: without the content partners, no one is going to pay, but without some sign that people will pay many partners may be reluctant to join. Not only that, but few publishers will want to join until they see some of their competitors doing so. And then there’s the difficulty of implementing this payment scheme across dozens or even hundreds of different websites and services.

The biggest issue, of course, is whether readers want to pay for any of the content that Brill and his partners want to lock up, regardless of how easy they make it. The group is even talking about implementing a “pass-along fee” of 5 cents or so for the ability to share an article with a friend. That may sound like a great model if you’re desperate for revenue, but for anyone familiar with how the Internet works it sounds like a toll road plunked down in the middle of the information superhighway. In a recent presentation at the mesh ’09 conference in Toronto (full disclosure: I am a co-founder of the conference), Mike Masnick of Techdirt described how content industries need to think about where the true scarcity lies in their business — not try to re-create through pay walls the kind of scarcity that they used to enjoy. I wish that Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz had been there to hear it.

POSTED     April 15, 2009, 11:51 p.m.
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