Brill Media Holdings, LP, the company that publishes Brill's Content magazine, has announced the formation of a partnership that will launch Contentville.com, an e-commerce site that will sell all kinds of content, including magazines, books and e-books, transcripts, speeches, and archived articles from magazines. Customers will be able to search across these categories for items of interest and refer to recommendations provided by a participating group of paid experts.
The partnership pulls together an interesting and unusual mix of companies, including some major industry players that the magazine covers in its self-proclaimed media-watchdog role. Partners include CBS and NBC, normally seen as unlikely allies; PRIMEDIA, Inc., the very large specialty magazine publisher; EBSCO, a magazine subscription service and provider of magazine archives to libraries; Ingram Book Group, the wholesale book and magazine distributor, and its affiliate Lightning Print, a provider of books on demand; and James Cramer, a Wall Street investment manager and founder of TheStreet.com.
Under the terms of the deal, CBS will gain a 35-percent equity position in the partnership in exchange for $40 million in advertising and promotion, over a period of 3 years, across CBS's media properties including television, radio, and outdoor. With 35-percent ownership, CBS becomes the largest shareholder in the partnership. An affiliate of Brill Media Holdings will own 34 percent of the new venture and be the managing general partner. Together, Contentville's partners are investing more than $100 million in cash and advertising inventory.
The recommendations and candid advice about what to buy, not buy, or read are supposed to come from a hired group that Brill Media says will be "from the nation's leading experts in these subject areas." The press release said these would be "people active in a particular field or who work at the country's most respected independent bookstores or libraries." A company spokesperson said that no additional details about hiring are available at this time. The New York Times reported that contributors would include former New York magazine editor Clay Felker, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and writer George Plimpton.
Some 60 leading independent bookstores reportedly will be affiliates of Contentville. They will be compensated by Contentville, but not based on how many magazines, books, or other forms of content are sold as a result of their recommendations or criticisms. A sample list of the 12 who have already signed on as affiliates includes booksellers like Fact & Fiction in Missoula, Montana, R.J. Julia in Madison, Connecticut, and That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas.
While some might question why a bookstore would participate, since Contentville will actually be competing with the stores, Roxanne Coady, the owner of R.J. Julia, said that she and others "are joining this venture because this kind of alliance with Contentville represents another way for independent bookstores to strengthen our individual businesses at the same time that we play an important role in creating an Internet business that reflects the ethos of the stores that we love."
Looking to set Contentville apart from sites like Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com (which undoubtedly will take notice of the newcomer with its media backers), CEO Steven Brill stressed that informed, disinterested recommendations would be its hallmark, not marketing. "In a world where everything is marketed and hyped, we want to create a place online that is like an old-time magazine stand, bookstore, or library, where everybody there reveres quality work and wants to share it with others," he said.
The other partners expressed enthusiasm and great hopes for the possibilities of the venture, each seeing ways to leverage their existing content or services. Fred Reynolds, executive vice president, CBS Corp., said, "Contentville.com is a terrific complement to CBS's Internet strategy of building a strong foundation of vertical channels which are rich in news, entertainment, sports, and informational content."
"Contentville plays to a key PRIMEDIA strength—content—and enables us to exchange advertising pages in our enthusiast magazines for equity in this exciting new venture," said PRIMEDIA chairman and CEO Tom Rogers. "It also presents an opportunity for us to sell our magazines using the Internet in a way that promises to be far more effective than many of the traditional ways magazines use to find subscribers."
EBSCO president and CEO J.T. Stephens said, "Marrying our market-leading archives and magazine subscription services businesses to Contentville's innovative new plan makes great sense for us and will help us as we use our proven assets and longstanding relationships with the world's magazine publishers to build a new company for the new century."
Brill's Content magazine was launched in mid-1998, with Steven Brill leading the charge to "hold journalists accountable." Brill had previously founded Court TV and American Lawyer Magazine. While the companies in the partnership emphasize that the agreement for the Contentville venture explicitly provides that the limited partners in Contentville will have no influence on or involvement in the magazine, other media covering the news were quick to bring up the issue of a conflict of interest, or more specifically, the appearance of a conflict of interest, that would be very difficult to counter. The article in The New York Times covering the news included several cautionary comments from high-profile journalism professors and was titled "Role of Media Journal in Web Site Partnership is Questioned" (http://www.nytimes.com/00/02/02/news/financial/brill-partnership.html).
The magazine has had its share of criticism in the last year and a half from the media it has covered. It has also suffered negative publicity about staff defections and subscription numbers that did not meet expectations, and it has already paid for a redesign of its print version. One day after the Contentville announcement, Steven Brill stepped down as editor in chief of the magazine, turning those duties over to David Kuhn, who had joined the company in the fall as editorial director of the Internet business. Even this caused a stir, since Kuhn had supposedly left Talk magazine with an agreement not to join another magazine. Brill will remain chairman and CEO of Brill Media Holdings.
Brill has some fairly ambitious plans for influencing consumer content choices: "The magazine is the guide to the who and the how and the why behind what they read, watch, and log on to; and Contentville is the place where they can come to buy the broadest range of what they want to buy at a good price and with honest guidance." The key here will be to maintain that honest guidance, for there's often a fine line between influence and control. One information industry colleague of mine said the name and description of the venture (dare we say "hype"?) reminded her of the controlled environment in the movie Pleasantville. Another colleague called Contentville "a most appalling choice of name," based on her conviction that "content" may be important to publishers but as a label means nothing to end-users. The new site is expected to launch in the second half of this year. The media will be watching closely.