In recent years the future of journalism has been uncertain at best. As free web content has proliferated, newspapers and magazines have seen their profits freefall. Many have shuttered their doors, or gone completely digital. Many still struggle to find a business model that works. There have been almost as many solutions proposed as there have been predictions made. Earlier this year, though, a company called Journalism Online released Press+, a platform that helps publishers maximize online subscription revenues. After a quiet launch this summer—and now with more than 1,500 affiliates—founders Steven Brill, Gordon Crovitz, and Leo Hindery announced that, as of Sept. 22, the Press+ e-commerce platform will help journalism grantees of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to seek online subscription revenue and reader donations.
Since 1950, the Knight Foundation has granted more than $400 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression. Known for its support of nonprofit news organizations proliferating across the country, the foundation told its news-affiliated grantees that it had made an arrangement with Journalism Online to allow the first ten grantees who launch Press+ within the next 6 months to receive a 1-year waiver of the revenue share that Press+ charges affiliates for its platform and payment and advisory services.
“I know the people at Knight very well…I just got the idea that Knight would want to help the entities it’s providing seed money to get to a business plan that helps them get past their seed money,” says Journalism Online co-founder Steven Brill. As it turns out, he was right. The goal, Knight told its grantees, is “to encourage you to seek permanent sources of financial support.” Brill says it took about a month from the first meeting between Journalism Online and Knight to the time a deal was made.
First to jump at the chance to work with Journalism Online was the New Haven Independent, a hyper-local news site covering schools, neighborhoods, businesses, and local government in New Haven, Connecticut. Before Knight had even announced the deal to its grantees, Brill had reached out to Independent founder Paul Bass.
Brill, who teaches at Yale University in New Haven and has had many students intern with Bass’ organization, says, “Literally by chance I happened to be reading The Yale Daily News just as we were drafting the press release for Knight and saw an article about [New Haven Independent’s] fifth anniversary and [Bass] happened to say they were looking to be more pro-active about donations.” Bass says the Independent was launching its reader support drive along with celebrating its fifth birthday on Sept. 6.
Brill immediately called Bass and asked if the Independent, which relies on a mix of foundation support and reader donation, was a Knight grantee—which it was. “We’re excited about [Press+] because it comes at the exact right time for nonprofit websites like ours to develop local funding bases rather than rely on national organizations,” says Brill. The Independent, Bass says, “will now have exactly the platform we need to encourage our devoted readers to support us at exactly the moment that they are reading the stories they appreciate most.”
“We know that to become sustainable, we need to get 75% of support coming from local readers and donors,” says Bass. Nonprofit news organizations like New Haven Independent will not be charging readers subscriptions fees—which is part of what Press+ allows content providers to do—but will, instead, be adopting a more NPR-like model. The Independent already has a “donate” button on its website, but Press+ will allow the organization to be more pro-active in soliciting donations from its users.
“The Press+ solution offers an easy way for us to ask for donations or to charge for content,” Bass says. ”For example, we could attach a meter to our education coverage and ask readers who read more than five or ten of those stories a month to pay a few dollars to become Members of an Education Coverage Group. Or we could simply ask for donations at different levels. We’ll no doubt experiment with a mix of all Press+ has to offer us as we integrate their platform.”
“This kind of targeted, pro-active solicitation will be far more compelling than simply having a donate button at the bottom of a website. And, as we continue launching Press+ at the websites of for-profit newspapers, magazines, and websites and build a critical mass of Press+ users,” Brill says, “the nonprofit affiliates will receive further benefits by installing our system—because our accountholders will be able to support their favorite nonprofit journalism sites with one simple click to their existing online Press+ accounts.” Once a user has signed up for a Press+ account he can manage multiple subscriptions and donations across the platform.
According to Journalism Online, which usually gets a 20% revenue share from its affiliates, the platform yields unique data that shows which paid content strategies are achieving the best results. It aggregates and shares data with publishers so they can optimize their platforms. Press+ will also connect publishers to create content packages, and help consumers discover content they value from among Journalism Online’s affiliates.
Bass and the staff at New Haven Independent have not yet gotten the platform up and running on its website. He says it will likely be a few weeks before it is able to fully implement Press+.