Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, may tell the world that when it comes to delivering digital content, free is the only price that interests the consumer. (See his Feb. 25, 2008, article at www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/16-03/ff_free or wait for the July release of his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, $26.99 list, $17.81 at Amazon.) But in these tough times, publishers-particularly news publishers-are scrambling for every dime. A new service called Journalism Online, LLC (www.journalismonline.com) is promising a package of options that will let publishers price their own content in multiple ways, negotiate with third-party content carriers ("Hello! Is this Google News? Well, listen here ..."), provide consumers with single-password access to a network of publishers, and analyze consumer group behavior to help publishers make smart pricing and access decisions.
The creators of the new service have deep backgrounds in the information industry field. Steven Brill, who began The American Lawyer magazine; launched Court TV; founded the abortive (14 month), but interesting, Contentville; etc., etc., has an abiding faith that people should pay for quality content. Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal and vice president of Dow Jones, led the leading business news source to success in charging subscribers. Wall Street Journal Online has more than 1 million paid subscribers. Leo Hindery Jr. heads InterMedia Partners, a media industry, private equity fund manager which he founded in 1988. He also headed up a series of major internet services company operations. The company's board of advisors includes David Boies, whose firm Boies Schiller will be involved in negotiating licensing and royalty arrangements with third-party outlets.
At present, Journalism Online seems to be riding the wave of publisher panic, primarily focused on the precipitous decline and fall of major newspapers. You can't pick up a newspaper-or click on a newspaper website-these days without reading some story of a newspaper teetering on the brink of extinction. Maybe even the paper you're reading! Publishers interested in shoring up their revenue should look to users, according to Journalism Online.
But success in extracting money from consumers depends upon easy transactions. Journalism Online promises to provide publishers with simple, flexible payment mechanisms for use on publisher websites and covering sales by subscription (multiple time durations, different content areas, etc.) and by item. Consumers who go directly to Journalism Online to set up their passwords will have the option to apply that same password to multiple purchases within the network of publishers established by Journalism Online or to pay a flat monthly fee for access to the entire network.
Sounds promising, right? But at present, Journalism Online apparently has nothing in place. They expect to have the payment mechanisms sometime in the fall. When I spoke with Brill, asking how Journalism Online's payment mechanisms would differ from standard ones such as PayPal or Google's DoubleClick and Checkout, he indicated that they might even rely on these existing payment platforms for a foundation to the service. He also expected that, as they signed up publishers, they would uncover useful payment mechanisms offered by those publishers that they could adapt. Clearly, it is early days yet for the company. A New York Times article commenting on the service quoted Brill as saying the possible monthly price for access to all Journalism Online's network would be $15. But when asked about that figure, Brill told me, "It would depend on how much content. I just threw out that number. It's not set yet."
I asked Brill the hard question that Journalism Online's leaders must face: "If people weren't willing to pay money when times were good, then why do you think they'll pay when times are bad?" He responded, "They were never asked to pay. Ten billion dollars of magazines are sold each year. That's more than for movies. Subscriptions will help publishers. Why give away that source of income during a revenue shortfall? Advertising is a disaster. The web offers an unlimited supply of ad space online." He has no plans to deal with traditional aggregators for archives, considering them to operate under a business-to-business model not a business-to-consumer model.
Hope springs eternal. On the one hand, Time-Warner Cable has shelved its plans to inaugurate two-tier pricing for broadband service under a storm of user protest in an environment where consumers could choose alternative competitors. On the other hand, a new company, Youreeka, has just announced an embeddable flash player that can handle secure payments and redistribute revenues. And the U.S. Congress has scheduled hearings to discuss the crisis in the news industry-hopefully looking at the situation as a problem and not just the sweet irony of "what goes around comes around." One way or another, something's got to break, and it seems like news publishers are overdue for a good break.