Steve Brill wants to charge for news… again

In the media industry, the name Steven Brill tends to bring back a lot of memories. The founder of CourtTV and Brill’s Content, he went on to create a new media entity called Inside, which was staffed with writers from Fortune and other leading publications. But the venture eventually folded. As more and more content moved online, Brill later tried to create a venture known as Contentville, which he envisioned as a sort of one-stop shop for content of all kinds — text, photos, video, audio — which publishers and distributors could offer through his online store.

Sound familiar? It should, because Brill is trying to revive the idea through a new project called Journalism Online, which he and his new partners announced this week. But the new venture has an unusual twist that Contentville — which eventually shut down due to a lack of revenue — did not.

Whatever you think of his idea, it’s clear that Brill still has some pretty high-powered contacts in media: one of his partners is Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and one of the guys who decided to charge money for the WSJ online, something virtually every other newspaper publisher dreams of doing someday. The third partner is Leo Hindery, a former telecom industry executive. Also on the board of advisors are former senior U.S. attorney David Boies and former Solicitor General Ted Olsen. The news release says that Journalism Online LLC will:

“…quickly facilitate the ability of newspaper, magazine and online publishers to realize revenue from the digital distribution of the original journalism they produce.”

How will it do this? Brill promises a four-point Marshall Plan for news, including a password-protected site where publishers can put their content and users can buy “annual or monthly subscriptions, day passes, and single articles from multiple publishers.” But it’s the third point in this plan that raises some interesting questions: the release says that the venture will “negotiate wholesale licensing and royalty fees with intermediaries such as search engines and other websites that currently base much of their business models on referrals of readers to the original content on newspaper, magazine and online news websites.”

(read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab)

WSJ: We charge, so why don’t you?

Not a day goes by without someone adding their thoughts to the growing pile of opinion about what newspapers should do when it comes to charging for content online. The latest treatise comes from L. Gordon Crovitz, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal — whose opinion is notable if only because his publication is one of the few that actually does so successfully. Not only that, but Crovitz is also the former publisher of the WSJ and the former head of Dow Jones Consumer Media Group, and helped launch the Factiva information group. As he describes it:

For a decade beginning in the late 1990s, I was the Dow Jones executive chiefly charged with defending the paid-subscription business model of The Wall Street Journal’s Web site. The skunk at every Internet-bubble-era garden party, the Journal team was often told we “just didn’t get it,” that information wants to be free and the paid model was idiotic.

Is there just a little gloating there, underneath the surface? Possibly — and perhaps some of it is justified. In any case, Crovitz wants to make the case that newspaper publishers gave up too easily in the fight to charge for content, and that they need to think about how to make their content worth paying for instead of whining about it quite so much. And he notes that there are many examples of publications and services that get people to pay for what they produce:

(read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab)

Globe and Mail pay wall comes down

I don’t do this a lot, but I just thought I would point out for those who might be interested that the Globe and Mail — which happens to be my employer — has removed the pay wall that used to block access to a lot of the paper’s online content. All of the columnists are now free to all readers, as are the horoscope and the crossword puzzle (which, as most journalists know, are the features that most readers really want). As the announcement on the Globe’s home page describes it, this means that all of the paper’s columnists “can join the fray and add their talented voices to the freewheeling conversations of the Internet era.”

Why did the paper decide to drop the wall? Without going into too much detail, my understanding is that we did it for the same reason the New York Times did: while the Insider Edition (as we called it) made money for the paper, the number of subscribers who were opting to pay for that content wasn’t growing, or at least wasn’t growing quickly enough to make it a very attractive business. Eventually, I think, senior editors decided that we would be a lot better off opening the doors and allowing people to link to our pay-walled content.

I haven’t seen recent numbers, but within a few months of the NYT dropping its wall, traffic to the site appeared to have surged. Whether the Times has been able to monetize all of that new traffic — and thus make up for the lack of a pay wall — is something I don’t know. But at least now they have a chance to grow that instead of managing what had become a slow or no-growth business, and so do we (the Globe continues to have a subscription product online, now known as Globe Plus, which includes the finance site GlobeInvestorGold and an “e-Edition” of the paper; access to the archives will also still cost a fee).

It’s interesting to look at some of the more than 180 comments that have been posted on the story since it went up first thing this morning: while most are of the “thank God you finally saw the light” variety, there are some who are less than enthused. One commenter says:

“I’ve long since found online alternatives to the Globe’s old ‘insider’ features. You can’t shut us out for a few years and then expect us to come back just because it’s free. You’re not the only game in town, and you’re going to have to offer us something genuinely new and original to get us to come back on a regular basis.”

Some commenters wish that we would go even further.

Nick Denton, blog warlord and economist

So all this time, Gawker Media founder and evil genius Nick Denton has been pretending to be a mild-mannered blog network CEO, when in reality he is a behavioural economist doing ground-breaking research into the mechanisms of human motivation and productivity. Of course, it could be that even Nick D. doesn’t realize the extent to which he is experimenting with such things — but Felix Salmon’s piece in Portfolio makes it pretty clear that’s exactly what he is doing.

In a nutshell, Valleywag bloggers are paid a low base salary and then have to “earn” that salary through page views generated on their blog posts (instead of being paid a flat rate per post, as they used to be). Once they have done so, they get paid for any additional page views on a per-thousand basis. The number used to be $9.75 per thousand, and now it is $6.50, As Felix points out, that means bloggers at the Silicon Valley scandal rag will have to produce 50 per cent more page views just to keep their income the same. Needless to say, no one is impressed.

As Salmon notes, one reason for the change could be that Denton underestimated the page view growth at Valleywag, and wound up paying his writers more than he budgeted for, so decided to cut back. In a similar vein, the rates paid to writers at the Wonkette political blog were recently cut — likely because Denton knows that page views will skyrocket with the approaching U.S. election, and therefore writers would stand to benefit without having to do any more work.

There’s an even more in-depth discussion of the behavioural economics of this kind of move at the Crooked Timber blog, where Henry Farrell talks about the somewhat perverse Catch-22 that such incentive schemes can run into when they make contact with the real world: for example, if people know that working hard will mean that their salary gets permanently pegged at that higher level and it takes them even more page views to make a bonus, then they won’t work as hard — in a sense, the incentive reverses itself and becomes a disincentive.

If you still can’t get enough of all this kind of talk, I recommend that you set aside half an hour or so and go read Part One of the latest Marc Andreessen series on entrepreneurship, in which he writes about Berkshire Hathaway executive and Warren Buffett sidekick Charlie Munger’s theories on incentives.

Digging a hole in the WSJ pay wall

Well, Rupert Murdoch has been dropping pretty big hints that the Wall Street Journal pay wall is a-comin’ down pretty soon — and it shouldn’t be too hard to make it crumble, since Digg just put a pretty big hole in it. As Kevin Rose describes in his rather economical post on the subject (I counted 38 words, not including his name), articles at the Journal will start carrying the Digg button, and any stories that get Dugg will be free for readers who come from the social-bookmarking site. Mike Arrington has a slightly longer post over at Techcrunch.