Reinventing the Newsroom

Will Journalism Online Succeed?

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on April 15, 2009

Yesterday Steven Brill, Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindery Jr. took the wraps off Journalism Online LLC, a new company whose mission is to make tools allowing content creators to charge for their work online. Journalism Online sounds agnostic about exactly how publishers would do that, offering options ranging from full subscriptions to day passes to purchases of individual stories — basically, every point along the spectrum of potential paid-content options that have been increasingly debated as the brutal shakeout of the newspaper world has intensified.

I was amused to see the initial takes on Journalism Online fall primarily into two buckets: The mainstream media mostly approached it as “People You’ve Heard of Are Doing Something” story, while the digital-journalism pundits mostly dismissed it as Same Old Same Old. (To my mind, the most-nuanced takes so far come from Mark Potts and Ken Doctor.)

Myself, I’m of two minds about the company’s prospects.

I wouldn’t take any venture that includes Brill, Crovitz and Hindery lightly — not to mention that Web vet Merrill Brown and super-lawyers David Boies and Theodore Olsen are also onboard. Those names and their associated track records will ensure that the doors of the top folks in newspaper firms and technology companies will be open, and that should lead to a lot of conversations that need to be had.

More specifically, I wouldn’t bet against Gordon Crovitz. One of my first posts on this blog was my take on paying for news, from the perspective of a Wall Street Journal Online alumnus. In that post, I noted that WSJ.com’s pay strategy was actually a lot more nuanced than the usual descriptions make it out to be, with most individual stories available for free, particularly if you come in via Google News. It’s “get the parts for free, pay for the whole,” and from what I saw at WSJ.com it seemed to work quite well, allowing WSJ.com to participate in the link economy and attract a steady stream of new potential readers without damaging its subscriber base — once readers come to value the Journal’s content, 40 cents a day seems like a bargain for not having to assemble the paper piecemeal. (See more of that post for why I think dismissals of the Journal as a unique paid-content case are far too breezy.)

Gordon spearheaded the “parts are free, pay for whole” strategy (my very soul rebels at the term “freemium”), and turned me from a doubter into a convert. He knows what he’s doing.

But here’s what makes me not quite a convert this time, at least not yet. Interviewed by Paid Content’s Staci D. Kramer, Crovitz stressed that Journalism Online isn’t going to be a consulting group. I absolutely understand why he’d resist that, but the problem is that a lot of newspapers are so mired in the quicksand of the digital transition that they have no chance of charging anybody for their current online products. They desperately need some direction before they can do that.

As I said in my Memo for San Diego, news organizations have a lot of strengths, but they’re wasting them trying to shore up the crumbling printcentric model when they should be figuring out how to make them serve the Webcentric model. While nobody knows exactly what that model will be, creating a strong, self-identifying and self-reinforcing community of readers is a crucial part of that. That’s the foundation on which new contexts for news will be built, readers will be re-engaged and new business models will arise.

Some of the biggest U.S. papers are such strong brands that they already have those communities, even in cases where they haven’t turned them into robust digital communities quite yet. And if Journalism Online can help them launch successful paid-content initiatives, that in itself would obviously be a watershed for the newspaper industry. But it wouldn’t mean that lots of other papers would be ready to do the same, or that the specter of shuttered newsrooms and extinct titles would stop haunting us. Many papers need direction before they can even think of charging. For them, Journalism Online might be the final piece of the puzzle — but they have a lot of pieces to put together first.

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