Monday, May 4, 2009

Brill, Crovitz & Hindery Launch "Journalism Online": About Time or Out of Time?

When Gordon Crovitz left Dow Jones several months ago, I knew that his experiences in helping to build the most successful premium online news brand would be likely to result in good things somewhere. Gordon’s insights into the value of traditional journalism and his online savvy are an unusual combination in the world of today’s content industry. So it was with some interest that I have been learning about Journalism Online, a new initiative captained by Crovitz, content industry veteran Steven Brill and former cable industry CEO Leo Hindery. In a detailed press release – more of a mini-business plan, actually – the Journalism Online (JOI) team has outlined a multi-pronged strategy to enable traditional journalism to reap new revenue streams from online sources.

As many of the elements of the JOI plan are in sync with what Shore has been advocating for many years to promote the health of premium content sales (I briefed Crovitz on the concepts of The New Aggregation about five years ago), I would be contradicting myself to say that his team’s plan doesn’t hold water. In fact, much of what Journalism Online advocates is sorely needed in the news industry and will be likely to offer professional journalists a chance to benefit from more sensible online business models in tune with how content is actually distributed and consumed online. However, there are some troubling aspects in both the details and the broad brush of this plan that should be considered carefully by publishers as they weigh its merits.

The first concept in the Journalism Online plan is really a no-brainer and long, long overdue. JOI would set up an online system that would enable anyone to sign up once for access to premium news content across the Web. Payment models via this system would vary, and would include subscriptions for individual premium publications, pay-per-view access and royalty-driven payments in a cross-source subscription model. This would enable any publisher participating in Journalism Online to share in common payment and billing infrastructure that would make a wide variety of premium business models possible. While JOI does not target mobile and television markets explicitly, clearly this is a system whose basic cross-source payment model based on open Web access can be easily extended to other content delivery networks.

So far, so good, most especially on the cross-source royalty model. In essence the Web is a broadcast medium that enables people to tune into multiple streams very easily, so tuning premium content delivery into a payment model more like radio’s royalty payment system for music producers is a strong plus. When specific content becomes very popular online, the spike in views of that content can result in direct revenues to its producers. In theory this helps to resolve the ongoing dilemma of having to expose content to search engines that’s monetized with ads that just don’t seem to take advantage of oftentimes brief spurts of interest in news items to the point of paying the bills for many publishers. If the QPass cross-platform payment system of ten years ago had not flopped by trying to control content distribution via their service we’d have had this type of payment management service in place years ago.

The next leg of Journalism Online’s plan is a little more shaky. JOI has put under its wings two of the most prominent legal talents in the U.S. – former Microsoft anti-trust attorney David Boies and former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson – to lead some strong-arm negotiations with search engines and online aggregators to pony up licensing and royalty fees for the right to link to JOI member content. While one has to respect the considerable judicial, political and corporate gravitas of these two legal heavies, I am concerned that their efforts seem to be misplaced. There is now a substantial body of law which makes it clear that indexing a link to a headline is not a crime and falls comfortably into the concept of fair use of copyrighted content. By the logic outlined in Journalism Online's stated focus they should be suing newsstands in cities across the world for exposing the headlines of newspapers to people walking by, or charging millions of dollars for copies of the venerable Periodicals Index on library reference shelves. I believe that this tactic is in large part a sop to news publishers who have been relying thus far on the Associated Press’ failing negotiations with Google and other search engines based on similar issues.

Strong-arm legal tactics for search engine licensing are also largely unnecessary, in large part, if the JOI system works as it ought to. Access policies could be enforced on all participating publisher sites, and terms of bulk access licensing could be managed for search engines and other corporate entities from the same system that services consumers. It’s more likely that the JOI legal team is a stick for the carrot of negotiating some meaningful price points for bulk indexing access – price points that are likely to disappoint many publishers, since the search engines know that news ad revenues would die without search engine links. What’s more promising is having legal and technology infrastructure in place that could facilitate bulk relicensing of content for reuse in new content aggregation schemes such as online mashups and in enterprise software applications.

The most concerning aspect of Journalism Online, though, is the sense that their team harbors a dogged determination to preserve the status quo at traditional news media outlets in the face of more than a decade of change fostered by online access to news. The following quote from Brill seems to set the tone for much of what JOI is trying to accomplish:
“We’re also convinced,” Brill added, “that readers, who have been paying billions of dollars a year for print journalism, will continue to support journalists by paying a modest, fair price for original, independent, professional work distributed online. They realize—as we do—that quality journalism is a vital component of a functioning democracy and free market.”
While I would agree that many people are willing to pay a premium for high-quality products and services, the implication in Brill’s statement is that they are out to support the journalists creating the news in a way that will sustain the traditions of print journalism. Given that many journalists caught up in newspaper cutbacks now have to accept wages that are getting closer to those offered for low-level services jobs while many media executives continue to do rather well by themselves, I think that it’s fair to say that the merits of the print journalism model's ability to support journalists are largely at question. This sales pitch for Journalism Online is not so much about preserving journalists as it is about preserving some portion of the lavish profits once enjoyed by a news publishing industry that no longer has near-exclusive access to publishing technologies. A “modest, fair price” doesn’t sound like the type of monies that will support glitzy skyscrapers that were paid for by those technologies. Promises and realiteis seem to be out of sync in this instance by a broad stretch.

In sum the Journalism Online initiative holds out a great deal of promise for the news media to revise its thinking on how to acquire revenues more realistically in an online environment, albeit with some sentimental froth around the edges of that promise for those not quite ready to accept the true value of news in today’s online publishing environment. In a world that has empowered over 1.6 billion people as publishers, it’s no longer realistic to think that only a handful of people who carry the official title of “journalist” are defining the supply of quality information and insights in the world. The key factor that Journalism Online really doesn’t address at all is that the news industry is surrounded by valuable sources of information that leave them struggling to define a fundamental value proposition, regardless of how it may be financed. News organizations are also surrounded by technology platforms that make it possible for consumers and enterprises to aggregate, filter and analyze news far more efficiently than via their own publishing platforms. The “let’s tame Google” approach to trying to control content linking and access belies the reality that the contexts in which news is most valuable are increasingly far away from publishers’ own Web sites. There's some tacit acknowledgment of this concept in the JOI positioning, but only time will tell if they can emphasize licensing of content for reuse efficiently enough to make a real difference for news producers who must compete with and complement new sources of engaging news and information.

The search for subscription and royalty payments fostered by Journalism Online also tends to gloss over the ad-driven culture of most of today’s news organizations that restricts fairly radically what topics and personalities gain their attention in their search for an increasingly limited “truth.” If JOI could help fund a broader approach to journalism that gave coverage to less ad-worthy topics, then truly it would be living up to its ideals. It’s far from clear, though, that the news organizations that Journalism Online intends to support are likely to maximize the funding of such “news for the sake of news” journalism any time soon, though. But as an alternative to AP’s trenchant response to online publishing, it at least offers some hope for the news industry as a whole as a means to overcome some of the challenges posed to it by online content distribution capabilities.

The concepts behind Journalism Online may yet succeed in helping the news industry to secure more revenues from online publishing, but it is already a far different industry than the one that used to be dominated by the organizations which JOI is approaching to use their services, an industry which needs to support independent journalism far more effectively and which benefits from content being aggregated in any number of venues. In the meantime, technology and services providers such as Sonoa Systems and Zuora offer their own broad approaches to content distribution and monetization that offer a broad array of publishers their own alternatives to the ads-only monetization game. It’s about time that industry veterans like Brill, Crovitz and Hindery got up the gumption to try an initiative like Journalism Online to shake the news industry out of its doldrums. Hopefully they will not run out of time to convert existing news organizations to the use of their proposed sevices before their potential revenue streams have drifted towards newer sources of journalism for good.

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