Journalism Online

Steven Brill and others are creating Journalism Online, a subscription service for online media that they hope will succeed where others have failed.

No publishers have signed on as yet as clients, but several major newspaper and magazine publishers have been in active talks with Journalism Online about how such a system should work.

As the company envisions the system, a nonpaying reader on a magazine or newspaper site would reach a certain point and see a page asking for payment — the Journalism Online system, operating within the publication’s Web site. But a reader who wanted a subscription to multiple sites would go directly to the new company’s own site.

“The most important thing is it’s simple to use,” Mr. Brill said in an interview. “Much of the barrier to charging online is the transaction friction, as opposed to the actual cost. With this system, you’d have a single password, give your credit card number just once.” He said that for the unlimited subscriptions, “we’re playing with a figure of $15 a month.”

Now, I’d gladly pay $15 a month if it truly worked, covered enough publications, and freed me from the annoyance of constantly being asked for my login or having to chase popovers around my screen to close them.  Then again, I’m in the upper reaches of the 99th percentile of consumers of online content.

Gawker’s Ryan Tate notes that Amazon and PayPal already have micropayments systems in place and there’s no way Brill and company could compete.  But Journalism Online is a something altogether different: one-stop shopping.  If enough prestige brands were behind the wall, the content would be enticing.

Jeff Jarvis, though, reminds us of why we should be skeptical.

I went to the Wall Street Journal site to read about it. But the damned site keeps forgetting who I am. So I got just a few lines and yet another pitch to subscribe, nevermind that I already had. Even though I have paid for the Journal – the only site I pay for (for now) – it wasn’t worth the effort even to remember my username and so I went to the New York Times and then to Reuters and then to Paid Content to read the story (PaidContent, a blog, did the best job). I knew they call covered the news thanks to GoogleNews.

The irony is painfully obvious: A pay wall stopped me from reading about putting up pay walls and I had no problem detouring around it to read free (and better) accounts.

Therein lies the challenge to this effort to put together content cartels. It takes just one guy to ruin the party. Best of luck to them but I predict it won’t work. Once again, this will not only reduce traffic and thus advertising opportunities and revenue but it will reduce Googlejuice (even if Google can search the paid content, it will get fewer links and clicks and thus less juice) and it will bolster competitors.

This isn’t the sort of thing likely to be the subject of original reporting by a blog, although PaidContent’s Staci Kramer in fact did so in this case. Then again, it’s a division of Guardian Media, a news conglomerate.

I’d love to see a convenient, reasonably priced system to allow good journalism to sustain itself.  Online advertising isn’t working all that well, for a variety of reasons, forcing publishers to come up with ever-more-intrusive ad models.  But Jeff’s right:  there will always be someone passing along the information behind these paid walls in free-to-the-user forums.

Story via memeorandum.  Photo by Flickr user Eric Rice under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brian J. says:

    Brill still owes me from when his last great revolutionary idea, the magazine Brill’s Content, went belly up without refunding me the amount of remaining issues I had on my subscription.