Steve Brill's Plan to Save American Journalism

Steven Brill—the man who gave the world American Lawyer magazine, CourtTV and the Clear card—is looking to do a little something for the ailing journalism industry. Brill announced this week that he and partners L. Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, and Leo Hindery Jr., the former CEO of AT&T Broadband, have started Journalism Online LCC. The company plans to help publishers charge readers for online access to some stories as well as negotiate licensing fees with news aggregators and search engines that use their content. NEWSWEEK's Jessica Ramirez spoke to Brill (a former NEWSWEEK columnist) about the venture, the future of journalism and how he thinks he can save it. Excerpts:

Ramirez: What made you take on this problem?
Brill: About six or seven years ago my wife and I endowed a program at Yale [that] involves trying to get new people into journalism [through] a series of courses, including internships and a career-services program. At a place like Yale, the career placement office basically used to be a place that makes appointments for people to be interviewed by McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. So, about a year and a half ago, as we were going through the admissions process for the people in the fall, I get a call from a woman who identified herself as the parent of a student who had just been accepted into the program. She began the conversation with, "Why are you doing this to my daughter?" And I said, "What do you mean?" "Well, she could have interned at an investment bank or consulting company and now you're luring her into a dead-end profession. How is she ever going to pay back her student loans?" That question has been nagging me for a year and a half now because I've been watching the economic model for journalism going down the drain. So I started thinking about how that could be reversed. The more I thought about it, the more this idea became logical for me.

Does this woman know she had such an impact on you?
Maybe not now, but she will. I mean, it got to the point that as I went around to major publishers of newspapers in the last few months, I would tell this story. I would say, "I'm trying to answer that lady's question." If the corporate culture is that it's free, that we're just giving it away, among other things, that kills morale in any newsroom. Also, in the history of the world, there has never been a journalism organization that's been able to exist independently and purely on advertising. You know, NEWSWEEK, Time, The New York Times have always had a healthy mix of advertising and circulation revenue.

Can you give me a rundown of what your new company will offer?
The first is one simple-to-use account and password for hundreds of publications. So once you register and have an account, you can buy subscriptions, day passes or single articles with one click. Second, there will be an all-you-can-read subscription—for a monthly fee of $15 to $20—to get everything from all of our participating publishers. Third, we'll negotiate on behalf of all our participating publishers with search engines, and Web sites like The Huffington Post—the people who now make a business out of the fact that journalism is free online. We'd get some kind of appropriate licensing fee if they want to use our stuff. Fourth is providing reports from the front lines. Up-to-the-minute metrics of what kind of stuff is working. I can sit here and tell you that micropayments really don't make sense for newspapers, or that monthly subscriptions do, but no one really knows yet. We'll try various methods and keep track to see what works. It may be that, for example, we learn it's best to keep sports content free and business content paid. It's about finding the right balance for online.

You're obviously not the first to suggest charging for online content. What makes you think your strategy will work for the broader journalism market?
You're asking me what makes me think people will buy good journalism online. The answer to that is what made everybody think 10 years ago that it had to be free. I think if enough publications take the steps to declare that it's worth something, then the public will support that. The challenge is that it has to be simple. I have three kids who used to steal music. They don't anymore because Steve Jobs figured out a way to make it relatively inexpensive, but more importantly to make it simple and kinda cool.

But in this instance, how do you get around a customer base that's not accustomed to paying?
Actually, you also have an audience that's accustomed to paying. Don't forget that you have [subscribers] that do pay. You know, I like to read Jon Alter. When you decided to e-mail me Jon Alter on Sunday instead of letting me buy it on Monday, you're basically saying, "Wait, don't take your wallet out. We'll give it to you for free and sooner than you could get it on newsstands and in a more convenient form." I mean, who came up with that policy? So, you have to stop it. Just because you've been doing something for 10 years doesn't mean you start year 11 doing the same thing.

How do you get an entire industry to think that way?
You don't need the entire industry. You need a chunk—a high-quality chunk. The other way you get them to agree is by reminding them that we're staring down the barrel of a bleak financial situation. That has really focused their attention. I intended to put out a press release on this a month or two from now, but the initial conversations accelerated so quickly, with publishing companies asking, where's our affiliation agreement, do you want us to invest in it, when are you going to start? So we had to move more quickly than we thought. There's no question that the debate has shifted from "if" to "how much and when."

So, how much and when?
How much is going to be up to publishers. How much to charge and how much should be free. We're basically going to let publishers experiment as they wish. What we're going to provide is really good metrics on what's working and what's not working. How soon? The fall.

What happens if the industry doesn't learn to shift toward charging for online content or come up with additional forms of online revenue?
What happens is what you're seeing happen. We don't have to guess about that. It's simply an unsustainable model.