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Media

April 19, 2009

Brill's Convent

If anything was made clear from the panel discussion at April's Media Circus event, it was that newspapers are desperately searching for a savior. They need someone or something to keep them relevant and sustainable, lest they fall irrevocably into oblivion. Now auditioning for the role of media Jesus: Steven Brill and his Journalism Online.

The failure of imagination in its name does not extend to its ambitions. The company is looking to work with a number of major publishers to put much of newspapers' online content behind a pay-wall. Though headlines and ledes would remain free—and search engine friendly—the full articles would be available only to paying customers, on a per-article, daily, monthly, or extended basis.

The nascent company doesn't yet have any clients, but its high-powered brass (former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz and cable titan Leo Hindery, Jr. are Brill's partners) is already in talks with players across the industry. According to Brill, the company is just what the ailing press needs right now. Writing in Journalism Online's inaugural press release, he writes, "We have formed Journalism Online because we think this is a special moment in time when there is an urgent need for a business model that allows quality journalism to be the beneficiary of the Internet’s efficient delivery mechanism rather than its victim."

So, can it work? Slate's Jack Shafer flatly says no. He thinks that it would be too legally and technologically challenging to keep freeloaders from parsing the sealed-off sites' content and redelivering it for free to the masses. "What's to prevent such Web enterprises as the Huffington Post, Nick Denton's Gawker enterprise, or some startup…from purchasing the most expensive all-tiers pass from Journalism Online and rewriting or otherwise encapsulating the best and most noteworthy walled-in articles in real time—and then selling ads against it?"

Presumably, Brill and co. recognize the difficulty in keeping their customers' stories from being cribbed. But maybe content piracy isn't such a big deal, given that Journalism Online is really only banking on readers' willingness to pay for legitimacy and credibility.

No, the biggest threat isn't recycling pay content, but the danger that all major newspapers might not sign on to the system. The rift such a scenario could create would undermine the entire project, since it would draw traffic away from the participating papers and towards those who don't.

Media Circus speakers offer (extremely) cautious optimism on Journalism Online, provided such a major divide does not occur. "It has potential, although it will probably mostly have the effect of pissing people off at first," says Gawker media blogger Hamilton Nolan. "A lot will depend on its adoption being really widespread, really fast. They shouldn't go with the launch unless it's harder to not use it than it is to use it."

Portfolio.com's Jeff Bercovici agrees. "It depends a lot on whether the big players get on board," he tells Gelf in an email. "If the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times, and USA Today all sign up, then sure, it could have a chance. But good luck herding all those cats."







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