Steven Brill generates business plans like a furnace throws off heat -- with force and gusto. Now Brill has unveiled what he says may be the cure for ailing newspaper industry. It's called Journalism Online LLC, a venture undertaken along with former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz, and Leo Hindery Jr., a former telecommunications executive and former CEO of the nation's largest regional sports cable channel. The trio think they can convince you to pay to read articles you can already get for free. It may sound like a tough sell, but hear Brill out.
"Newspaper publishers and magazine publishers have been engaged in group suicide," Brill says. "They all decided, for reasons I can't figure out, that they were going to give their stuff away for free online, at the same time that they sell it on newsstands.... They're now seeing the consequences of it."
So sure, publishers would love to make money online from paying readers -- it's expensive taking time to pin down elusive things like. But why would readers pay?
Brill points to the subscribers who are still paying for magazines such as Newsweeek. "That number is going down -- but one of the main reasons it's going down is, you're giving it away for free" online, Brill says. "I'm not saying that you're going to have the soaring monopolistic profit margins that some newspapers enjoyed once upon a time."
But there are real profits to be made, particularly because advertisers prefer reaching readers who actively pay for the stories they're reading.
"You cannot sustain the model of independent, you know, thoughtful, well-trained reporters going out and doing the core function in a democracy...if it's all free," Brill says.
Under his plan, people could either subscribe to a full publication, to something approximating an RSS feed of articles about specific subjects or regions or to an a la carte menu of stories. People wouldn't have to visit the company's web site, but could be presented with nearly instant options of paying when clicking on a story.
He says the process of paying should be as painless as it is for iTunes -- an innovation that he says converted his children from pirates of online music to consumers paying for it. And he says if enough news sites join, readers will feel the absence of the stories they care about most quite keenly.
There are some incredibly thorny issues to resolve. It might be fairer for people to value the producers of the online content they consume, instead of just shoveling money at Internet providers. But so far that hasn't been the case. Additionally, if the cost is modest enough that readers don't mind paying, it may not do enough to replace papers' lost advertising and circulation profits.
Brill says each paper could chose its own model, and that he'd share the results of what worked best with other clients.
Brill is a big power in media circles: he's is an author and entrepreneur who founded the trade publication American Lawyer, the now defunct media criticism magazine Brill's Content, and Verified Identity Pass Inc, a private firm that uses biometric information to check the IDs of airline passengers so they can move through security swiftly.
If his process is to work, that last line on his resume -- the one where he moves people through an unpleasant process quickly -- may prove more relevant than people think.