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Nov. 20, 2009, 3 p.m.

How Steve Brill has adjusted his pay-for-news pitch

Because it’s my job, I’ve followed pretty much everything Steve Brill has said in public about Journalism Online, the pay-for-news firm he launched in April with Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindrey. From the start, they’ve been offering infrastructure and consulting for news organizations that want to charge for access to their websites. But as you’d expect with any new venture, the pitch has changed over time. Here are some tweaks I’ve noticed:

Ditching the term “paywall”

Brill has always been clear that he isn’t advocating a subscription-only approach for news sites. Some content will be free, some will be available only to those who pay. But whereas Brill used to use the term “wall” to describe subscription content, he’s now abandoned that language. “We’re not putting up any kind of a paywall,” he’s been saying, most recently in a heated interview on WBUR. “It’s not a paywall,” he said at a Yale conference last week.

That’s a semantic distinction but one that naturally raises the question: What type of stuff will be subscription-only? I posed that question to Brill at Yale, seeking specific examples, but he wouldn’t say much beyond “unique” and “premium” content. (Steve Outing recently prompted an interesting thread on what, exactly, premium content is.) I didn’t come away with a clearer idea of what his clients intend to charge for, just that I shouldn’t call it a paywall.

Embracing the metered model

Journalism Online will power any type of payment system that publishers choose, but Brill’s thinking has shifted on which strategy is best. Last year, he drafted a memo for The New York Times that championed micropayments and subscriptions for the newspaper’s entire website. In June, he told me, “We don’t think micropayments are going to be a huge part of this deal.” These days, he’s been talking up the metered model employed by The Financial Times, which offers 10 free articles a month before users are required to pay.

Brill’s firm claims trademarks on the names of six models — he calls them “dials” — that news publishers could employ:

— High Activity Pay Points (metered model)
— Selected Content Pay Points (partial paywall)
— Time-Based Pay Points (charge for new content)
— Enhanced Service Pay Points (charge for special features)
— Market Access Pay Points (charge based on user’s location)
— Preview Activity Pay Points (allow previewing of paid content)

Broadening the target audience

In the spring, Brill told me the goal was “to get the 5 or 10 percent of your most committed readers to pay.” This summer, he expanded that target in an interview with CNN: “The idea is that a newspaper probably has 10 or 15 percent of its audience who are the most engaged, who come to that Web site all the time. Those are the people who will be asked to pay a small portion.”

At Yale last week, he said “10 or 15 or 20 percent” of a news site’s unique monthly visitors might be willing to pay. I don’t presume to know what a realistic goal is, though that’s obviously crucial to the success or failure of paid-content plans. I do know that one study found “core loyalists,” who visit 2 to 3 times a day for 20 days a month, represent 25% of visitors to newspaper sites. So if you’re probing Brill’s estimates, there’s your starting point.

Exaggerating his firm’s success

“We now have over 1,200 affiliates,” Brill said on the radio yesterday, making it sound like 1,200 publications are ready to charge their readers for digital content. Asked to clarify, he said, “Companies representing or owning over 1,200 publications have all signed letters of intent.” We know that includes Guardian News and Media, which doesn’t appear likely to charge readers. Most of the other companies that have signed non-binding letters of intent remain a mystery, which makes the whole thing increasingly mysterious.

Brill is certainly under no obligation to disclose his clients, but the more he touts a dubious figure, the more skeptical I grow. Here’s a harder statistic, reported by Poynter: Between 5 and 15 publishers will start testing Journalism Online’s infrastructure “in the next month or so.” The firm’s own business model is dependent on at least some of its 1,200 affiliates pulling the trigger: Journalism Online is taking a 20% cut of subscription revenue.

POSTED     Nov. 20, 2009, 3 p.m.
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