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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.

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  • Steve Brill


    This is a really smart piece. I’ve been thinking the same thing lately — ie., how our plan has changed the more we spoke to publishers and the more we did other research. I’d like to think that’s a compliment. (I used to tell people that when we published the first issue of the American Lawyer i thought it was the best thing since Gutenberg [sp?], but once we absorbed reaction to it and published the second issue, i went around hiding copies of the first one because i thought it was so inferior.)

    Similarly, i’ll bet you that some of those 16 dials on our Reader Revenue Platform will be discarded a year from now as being hindsightedly stupid or unrealistic. The problem is that today we don’t know which ones. But we’ll learn. We’re trying to create a whole new busines model, so we’d better be prepared to learn.

    As for your questions about our 1,200 Affiliates, as I’ve explained, they don’t want to announce anything unless and until they launch to their customers, so that they can communicate directly with them rather than via some press statement we make about them and the others. Your skepticism here grows out of the one really dumb thing i did early last summer, when i promised various reporters that we’d announce our first group of 500. After having a conversation with the first publisher to get his approval for that kind of press release and he asked why he would let us announce his affiliation before he had a specific plan to announce to his customers, I realized, as a former publisher, that this was a hopelessly myopic approach.

    So, as our Affiliates launch, you and everyone else will hear about them at the same time their customers do.

    Best regards,


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  • Paschal Fowlkes

    Mr. Brill is right that a considerable amount of flexibility is required to accommodate a dynamic that will no doubt continue to evolve relatively quickly. The real challenge is efficiently serving diverse audience bases with a range of what and how they’re willing to pay. And that discussion needs to extend beyond the money and consider the other ways audience can add value to the product. (

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  • CT Moore

    I think the idea of charging for content in an abundance economy is stubborn and myopic.

    I think what newspapers should be doing is (1) setting up an unpaid registration wall, (2) offer registers user profiles complete social media integration through APIs, (3) putting something in place to mine that data, (4) exploring how to use first-click-free from Google to drive registrations, (5) diversifying their ad revenue model,and (6) using the user-data they accrue through free user profiles to offer advertisers better targeting and ROI.

    It’s not exactly rocket science. After all, newspapers are in the content production/dissemination business first and foremost. There’s no reason why they have to be tied to charging for that content. Content technology has hit a point where there is no need to charge for content because there are few barriers to publishing, so revenue models have switch to being completely ad-supported. And ad technology is at a point where if you have the data, you are in a great position to offer advertisers of all sizes something that can suit their business goals.

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  • Karen Hurtz

    The problem for news distributors is their lack of quality product. My guess is that cronyism between the government, big business and the “news” media is the biggest problem with news. The news tells me what government and big business wants me to think – not what I want to know.

    For example, I for one would pay to know why there wasn’t a Congressional investigation when Dick Durbin said the banks owned the Senate. So what did “news” find out about it?

    How is it that banks refuse to reduce ANY principal to modify a mortgage for the homeowner (who may have spent $100K or more in payments), but then immediately sell the home at a 30% or 40% after foreclosing? That’s a story I would pay for.

    And what, specifically, happened to the TARP funds that banks received? Why aren’t reporters staked out at banks instead of Tiger Woods’ house?

    In another example, after more than an hour of searching to find out what the average Chinese worker makes, I found two bits of information: they made $160 a month in March 2006 (BusinessWeek) and are down to $146 per month in February 2009 (Reuters). But along the way, I came across dozens of “news” articles about how Americans needed to adjust to global competition.

    When news is helpful to the people you want to sell it to, that’s when it will be profitable. So long as news is mostly gossip and surface reports that generate more questions than it answers, few will pay you.

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  • Mirjam

    Sympathique cinéma à portée de main programmant des comédies à succès

  • Benton
  • payday online

    Decent job toward this message. Obviously sounds better aside from the recent handful. Keep it high.

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    I am having issues with the footer in IE

  • Cody

    Im having issues with your header image in Internet Explorer