News Corp and The New York Times have suggested they might start charging for web content. Last week Newsday did start charging for access to its website. Does this mean the days of completely free news websites are over? Steven Brill is founder of Journalism Online, a company that works with over a thousand news organizations to help monetize online content. He says the moment has come to pay up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, the website of the Long Island newspaper Newsday underwent a huge transformation. Every article on the site now ends abruptly after a couple of paragraphs, some with cliffhangers like this one, quote: “The rifle-toting suspect banged on the door and…” dot, dot, dot. To find out what happens next, you have to pay the five-dollar-a-week subscription fee. You still get unfettered access to the website, if you subscribe to the print edition or if you pay for Internet service through Optimum Online, owned by Newsday’s owner, Cablevision. But could this be a harbinger of things to come? Rupert Murdoch has been very vocal about his desire to charge for all content on News Corp sites by the end of this fiscal year, and last week New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said a decision was coming, quote, “within a matter of weeks” on whether the Gray Lady would charge for some of its online content. Cue the jingle.
GROUP SINGS: Present and future business models for monetizing the newspaper industry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Brill is the founder of a company called Journalism Online, which works with over a thousand news organizations to devise models and infrastructure for monetizing online news. Brill says there’s been an attitude adjustment on charging for Web content.
STEVEN BRILL: When we launched Journalism Online in April, there were all these handwringing debates about if people would do it, should they do it. And now every conversation we have is about when and how.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Isn't this something that a critical mass of news sources has to do together at nearly the exact same moment because, as we heard during recent hearings on Capitol Hill, doing it willy-nilly will simply drive your audience to services that aren't doing it?
STEVEN BRILL: No, I think that’s completely false. No one’s talking about having basic news, you know, the score of the sixth game of the World Series suddenly have a charge attached to it, because then people can flee to something that’s free. Once you get past the common news, what every journalism organization has to ask itself is, what can I do that’s distinctive and better than anybody else is doing it, and get a portion of my readers to pay for it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wonder how consumers might pay for this. Do you think the key is just one bill, 10 bucks a month that would cover all online news, not just from one paper, a certain payment for kinds of coverage, like a sports package?
STEVEN BRILL: There'll be packages, there'll be individual things, micropayments, in other words, paying by the article, as well as weekly subscriptions, monthly subscriptions, annual subscriptions. And the main service we're really offering in that regard is not only the flexibility to do all those things but the market intelligence, the reports from the front lines that we will give all of our affiliates, saying, you know what, monthly subscriptions work a lot better than annual subscriptions, or showing people the first two paragraphs is four times as effective as showing them the first paragraph. We hope a year from now all the different options you and I are talking about will have been whittled down and there'll be a set of what seem to be best practices for what consumers like the most and what’s most valuable for publishers to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven, let me ask you about TimesSelect. It made quite a lot of money for The New York Times. This was a decision to put certain columnists behind a pay wall. But it kept those columnists from being easily accessed through Google and other search engines. The Times people felt that they were foregoing exposure to their online advertising by putting them behind that pay wall so they discontinued it. Isn't there some concern that whatever these structures are will deny people happening upon them, stumbling upon them, in the parlance of the Web, because they can't be accessed directly?
STEVEN BRILL: First of all, I think even The Times would say that today that decision would be really different. There are many, many more people online who are likely to pay for content.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And why is that? They're simply just psychologically prepared to do that now?
STEVEN BRILL: Yeah, I mean, all the market research says so. Second, all the market research also says that if you’re going to charge for anything, though, the thing you shouldn't charge for are the opinion pages. A third, the advertising rates, the amount you could charge for advertising when they had TimesSelect was much higher than it is today because there’s now so many websites with so many pages that every publisher is getting a fraction of what it used to be able to get for advertising. The last point is that Google actually can be and should be the best possible sales source for content online. You can set it up so that, you know, Google will still send people to those articles, but then they might be asked to pay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you familiar with what Newsday has done?
STEVEN BRILL: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think?
STEVEN BRILL: The whole plan that Newsday has put into effect has much more to do with Cablevision’s competition with Verizon for television service on Long Island than it has to do with Newsday. Suddenly they've said Newsday is a 260-dollar-a-year product, but we're giving it to you for free and Verizon can't give it to you for free. There are four or five newspapers across the United States that have been charging online for a while but giving it away for free to print subscribers, and what they have in common is they're about the only newspapers in the United States that haven't seen their print circulation go down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re one of the optimistic ones? You think this is going to work.
STEVEN BRILL: It’s not a panacea and it’s certainly not going to happen overnight, but The New York Times is, you know, I think a [LAUGHING] fabulous newspaper, and its website is even better than the newspaper. It’s constantly updated. It’s got video. It’s got really interesting blogs. And yet the newspaper is now constantly raising its newsstand prices, and the better product, you know, which people of a younger generation would rather have, is free. That’s just not a terribly logical business model. We need to reestablish the idea that journalism has value, that it’s perfectly appropriate and fair that readers pay something for it, too. That is the only way to recreate the business model for journalism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven, thank you very much.
STEVEN BRILL: Sure enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Brill is the founder of the company Journalism Online.