Extracting payment from online readers has been called everything from the next great folly of print journalism to its salvation, but to get a glimpse of how it really looks, head to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Specifically, head to the offices of the Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era, one of the first handful of news outlets to acknowledge in interviews that it intends, in the next few months, to start using a software system developed by the entrepreneurs Steven Brill, L. Gordon Crovitz and their partners, which they are calling Press(PLUS).
Others interested include the Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina and GlobalPost, an Internet site based in Boston.
A very small number of news organizations, including the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and Newsday, already charge online readers, each with a system developed largely in-house, and the New York Times announced recently that it planned to do the same. With advertising plummeting, however, many other publishers eager for a new source of revenue are considering making the switch, despite the risk of losing audience and advertising.
Last year, Brill and company seized on that interest, founding their operation, Journalism Online, with the aim of developing a highly flexible system that would become the industry standard, and keeping 20 percent of their client’s online revenue as their fee.
They say they have worked with potential clients from around the world, most of whom they will not name, who operate more than 1,300 news sites. The News Corp, owner of the Wall Street Journal, is also marketing an online pay system to publishers, but industry executives say that it has made little headway.
So if it turns out that Lancaster is in the vanguard of a mass movement — and there are plenty of skeptics who say that charging could be a short-lived experiment — then Press(PLUS), if it works well, could be the movement’s chief organizer.
But in their first extended interview in months, Crovitz and Brill, while offering a look at how the system works, also cautioned against high expectations and said they had urged their clients to take small steps. It will take years before charging Internet users significantly changes the economics of a deeply troubled industry, they said.
As newsprint becomes a smaller part of the business, “you want to establish the notion that it’s worth something online,” Brill said. “What we have convinced people of is they don’t have to make a drastic decision. You can experiment.”
For those who have signed on, such lowered expectations are part of the appeal.
“We’re starting small, so if this really turns people off, we’re not playing with a huge chunk of our readership,” said Ernest Schreiber, editor of the Lancaster paper’s Web site, LancasterOnline.com.
The site has been using and adapting the Press(PLUS) software for some time, and he said it would go into effect in a month or two.
At the outset, the paper, owned by a local company, Steinman Enterprises, will charge only readers outside its immediate area and only for reading obituaries, with a little green Press(PLUS) logo next to each headline covered by the system. It will allow a reader to see a certain number of obituaries free before a box pops onto the screen demanding a flat fee to keep reading, but the paper has not yet decided what that number will be, or how much it will charge.
“We have news that no one else has, like these obituaries,” Schreiber said. “We would eventually take other sections of our online content into the system. I’m thinking local sports, perhaps.”
The system may generate only a few hundred thousand dollars a year in revenue, he said, but “that’s enough to pay for a few reporters.”
Philip Balboni, president and chief executive of GlobalPost, a year-old site that focuses on international news, said it would take a different approach to using Press(PLUS). Frequent users will see messages urging them to join and pay, but it will be voluntary; there will be levels of membership with different prices, and those who do pay will be able to suggest topics for articles and have access to premium content. Those who do not join will continue to have access to most of the site.
“We anticipate rolling it out by the end of March,” and hope to have tens of thousands of paying readers by year’s end, he said. “By year two, it would become a very significant contributor to our total funding, but advertising, I anticipate, would still be No. 1.”
Crovitz is a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw the use of its online pay system and began to develop a new version of that system.
Brill has a long record of starting ventures in untested waters, some more successful than others. He founded The American Lawyer magazine and the Court TV channel, which succeeded, and Brill’s Content, a magazine about media, which did not. He also founded Verified Identity Pass, whose system, called Clear, allowed frequent travelers to speed through airport security, but he severed ties with the company before it ceased operation last year.
Their partners in Journalism Online include Leo Hindery, a former top executive at Tele-Communications Inc and the YES Network, and Ken Ficara, who helped develop and run the Journal’s Web site.
“We are quite a ways from widespread adoption of paid content, so it’s too soon to tell how successful they’ll be,” said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute in St Petersburg, Florida.
But most publishers will not want to develop their own software systems, he said, and assuming Press(PLUS) works well, its chances of catching on “look pretty good.”
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