By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The trouble with Brill’s not-so-secret memo

My apologies for not being right on top of this earlier in the week. I just had a chance to read Steven Brill’s no-longer-confidential memo, “Turning Around the Times — and Journalism,” posted on Romenesko, and I’ve got a few observations.

First, a bit of praise for Brill, who, near the beginning of his career, wrote one of the bravest books I’ve ever read — “The Teamsters,” about an organization that, at the time of publication (1979), was more a criminal enterprise than it was a union. I don’t know how Brill found the courage to start his car in the morning.

And though I’ve weighed in several times (here and here) on why it doesn’t make sense to think that newspapers will be able to charge a fee to their online customers, I understand the problem. Even though what you pay for a print edition doesn’t even cover the cost of manufacturing and distributing it, the fact — and the problem — is that print advertising is far more lucrative than online advertising. Never is a long time, but it’s beginning to look like Web advertising may never support the public-interest journalism on which a healthy, self-governing society depends.

So I’m sympathetic to, though not supportive of, Brill’s ideas for charging online customers. It’s possible that it might even work for the Times because of its unique appeal. There are probably quite a few people who’d pay for access to the Times, but not for anything else. And therein lies one of problems with his plan, though by no means the only one.

Here’s the biggest drawback I see in Brill’s proposal: it would end blogging, as valuable a journalistic form as has been developed since the inverted pyramid. A really good blog post might link to three, four or five news stories — maybe more. A really good blogger might skim through 10, 15 or 20 stories in the course of synthesizing them into that post. Finally, that blogger might look at many dozens of news sources on a regular or semi-regular basis.

Obviously, bloggers — most of whom are doing it for no money — cannot afford to subscribe to dozens of online newspapers and magazines. Even if they could, they want to know that when they link to particular stories, their readers will be able to follow the links and read those stories as well. How many online news sources is a typical blog reader supposed to subscribe to?

Micropayments, which Brill also mentions, get around this. Properly implemented, they’re deducted automatically. But though 10 cents an article might seem reasonable, do you really want to pay $1 to read a well-constructed blog post and follow all the links? Of course you don’t. No one is going to do such a thing.

Brill says that if the Times charges $1 per month to each of its 20 million unique monthly visitor, that would generate $240 million a year. I’ll withhold my sarcasm, because this is math, and experience tells me that I could be wrong. But it strikes me that Brill has convinced himself that the Times could get a buck out of every person who, at some point during the course of a month, clicks on a link to a Times story that he found via a search engine. Intuitively, it seems to me that they’re not going to do that, and I’m pretty sure Brill would concede the point if he’d think about it.

The only folks who are going to pay $1 a month are the journalism geeks like me, who actually prop open their laptops at breakfast and read a good chunk of the Times online. And I suspect the number of people who actually read the paper that way is far, far smaller than 20 million.

Case in point: Christian Science Monitor editor John Yemma told me last fall that 84 percent of visitors to the paper’s Web site come in via search engines, aggregators and blogs. Let’s say it’s the same for the Times. Let’s say you could get every one of the 16 percent who come in through the front door to pay $1 a month. That’s $38.4 million for the year, not $240 million.

I realize that my critique would appear to leave no way out of the dilemma in which the Times and other newspapers find themselves. I happen to think there may be more life left in the print edition than we all imagined a couple of years ago. I’d raise the price by quite a bit, maybe offer some premium, print-only features (heresy, I know, but worth thinking about) and perhaps offer those well-heeled customers access to some special services.

A solution? No. But it might work as a holding action until we can figure out what’s next.

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  1. Chris Devers

    Here's a thought:There's a widely circulating idea that the only way a lot of newspapers are going to sustain themselves is if they start charging for access to the web site, but if any of the other sites remain free, then it's a suicidal move. In the best case scenario, as you hint at here, the newspapers do all start charging at the same time, but then this has negative knock-on effects that could end up being just as suicidal, from damaging blog-journalism to diminished realized revenue.Either way, it seems like the only way forward is for a big fraction of the major papers to take some kind of coordinated effort. So how about the newspapers look into some kind of confederated subscription model, where being a "member" of one paper gets you access to other ones as well? If you get a membership to the Franklin Park & Stone Zoos, or the Museum of Science, that membership also gets you access to free or reduced admission to other zoos & science museums all over the country, and even internationally. Maybe the newspapers can do something similar, and this could play out in various ways. A membership to the NY Times might be more expensive than others, but would get you into other any other newspaper site in their network, while a cheaper Boston Globe membership might get you access to a handful of NYT articles per month, but not unlimited access there, but maybe it would get you full access to the Patriot Ledger, etc.Yes, this would involve getting a bunch of competing companies to come up with a way to pool & distribute revenue amongst themselves, but it's starting to seem like a situation where they'll either stand together, or hang separately. They have little to lose by trying it.

  2. NewsHound

    It is important to retain the integrity of antitrust and federal Fair Trade Commission laws and regulations.

  3. Jerry

    Dan – Another tidbit of food for thought while folks are working out what people will pay for online journalism and what they won’t: I bet that Media Nation Central, like my house, is paying Comcast ~$60/month for a laundry list of 70+ channels (so-called Standard service) — of which you regularly watch only a half dozen or so, and irregularly watch only four or five more.

  4. mike_b1

    The math is likely off in another respect, too: Because users refresh their cookies, sometimes often, it is impossible to know the true volume of unique traffic to a website. So that 20 million might only be 15 million … or 10 million … or – gasp! – 5 million.And there goes your pay model.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: I’m pretty sure Brill is using the Nielsen numbers, which are based on interviewing people and asking them where they visited. Nielsen is widely disparaged for undercounting, not overcounting, since it relies on people remembering what they were doing when they were goofing off at work.

  6. Ani

    This may be a simplistic way of trying to grapple with this problem, but I keep asking myself the question of who is benefiting financially from readers reading blogs and news websites. If trying to translate the reader-paper-advertiser nexus from print to on-line results in that nexus falling apart, trying to put it together again on-line as Brill seems to be trying to do seems futile. If advertisers in print news could make enough money as the result of advertising in print that they could pay for news production, then maybe the question now is who does or can reap profits from our reading news and blogs on-line, and hence would be willing to pay? If it’s not some variation of the old combination of advertisers and readers, who’s it going to be? Internet service providers? We buy their service anyway. If it’s no one, then does professional news production wither and we have citizen journalism instead? I mean, we, collectively, seem to have accepted Wikipedia, which does not encourage me. I also worry about how much of what we read on-line is more of value as entertainment, and how much we should be encouraging that. My apologies to everybody who has thought these things through to this extent already.

  7. Jeffrey Klineman

    Dan –I have no problem with the Times exerting some control over its content with regard to bloggers — in fact, it would level the playing field. Right now, the times is suffering death by 1 million cuts as its content is used by bloggers, many of whom use its content in lieu of their own reporting.Making bloggers pay for some media content wouldn’t end blogging as a part of the art of journalism; in fact, it might actually do some good by professionalizing it. By creating a competitive situation where the Times forces those bloggers who do not make their reputation via original reporting to actually put some skin in the game, it would actually raise the bar for quality.True, no reader would want to pay a buck to read a good blog post — but they’d probably be willing to subscribe to ones they like, right? So then you’ve created a paid model for either an individual blogger or even a blog network or other type of channel or online community system, one that, if it’s planning on creating a competitive model, is going to have to pay for the information it uses as infrastructure, much like that late, lamented printing press.

  8. Mike F

    Dan, I find your idea for tinkering with the print editions rather than the online versions really interesting. It’s a short-term, treading water solution that won’t have the effect of actively driving away potential new readers or the casual/link directed clicks. Adding to the print editions would have a sort of ‘what they don’t know won’t hurt ’em’ effect. You offer more if people pay, but you’re not cluttering the linking process, making the non-regular reader’s experience cumbersome, and actively directing people to look elsewhere.

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