A tale of two very different journalism start-ups
By Bill Grueskin
You can learn a lot about where journalism is headed by looking under the hoods of two new startups.
The companies – Journalism Online and Publish2 – share a common goal, to help save journalism. But they couldn’t be more different in they ways they’re organized, the backgrounds of the executives or the solutions they offer.
Journalism Online is a weeks-old venture founded by Steven Brill (founder of American Lawyer), Leo Hindery (former telecom chieftain who was the partner of Newsosaur Alan Mutter back in their cable-TV days) and Gordon Crovitz (ex-publisher of The Wall Street Journal, where he was my boss when I was managing editor of WSJ.Com.) Their group vows to provide streamlined ways for publishers to generate online circulation revenue.
The two likely don’t see each other as competitors; indeed, they’re rarely cited in the same article or blog post. But I happened to interview Crovitz and Karp separately one day last week, and was struck by their widely different visions of journalism’s future.
Crovitz is a thoughtful (as in Rhodes Scholar-thoughtful) gentleman who oversaw much of the growth of the Online Journal. In our interview, he outlined a four-pronged strategy, ranging from providing a commerce system for publishers to devising aggressive marketing plans to sell subscriptions across the board for multiple outlets. His group also wants to help negotiate licensing and royalty deals with aggregators, which may explain why they brought attorneys David Boies and Theodore Olson to the company’s board.
Crovitz believes a coordinated effort to build subscriptions could bring scale and lower costs. In the late 1990s, when a one-year WSJ.com subscription cost $49, the incremental cost to serve a new subscriber was $8, Crovitz said. By 2006, the price of that subscription was $99 while the cost of serving the subscriber had dropped to 85 cents.
Brill, who is Crovitz’s co-founder, told Paid Content recently that the technical side of this venture hasn’t been hashed out. “We’re talking to a whole variety of developers,” Brill said, adding that launching an e-commerce site “isn’t rocket science.” (Actually, having seen the pitfalls of an online commerce system, I’d say rocket science is pretty close to what they’ll need, especially if this is going to work across multiple content-management systems.)
Toward the end of our interview, Crovitz brought up an interesting insight. He said his firm would also try to address the “more complex issue” of how publishers long enjoyed “a direct relationship with readers. Now we’re entering an era of multiple devices, and it’s not clear publishers can maintain their relationships with readers online. The device sometimes has the relationship, not the publisher.”
Which gets us to Publish2.
Karp, the venture’s CEO, agrees newsrooms are in a terrible fix, and identifies similar issues about publishers and readers. In the media business, he says, “it’s the package that’s valuable, not the individual article. … Newspapers used to own the distribution channel; they used to be at the front end.” But now, “Google and others have taken over distribution. And newspapers are at the tail end, which is the least profitable.”
Karp wants news organizations to get back to the distribution business by sharing their own content broadly and surfacing others’ content aggressively. That goes against the instincts of many journalists, but even when reporters buy into it, the process in most newsrooms is clunky (lots of cutting and pasting, with links often stuck under the ads). So Karp offers a platform to make that process as seamless as possible.
To see this in action, Karp cites coverage of floods last January in Washington State. As high waters inundated highways and breached levees, editors who ordinarily would compete with each other used Publish2 to learn what other news organizations were reporting and to sharing that content as part of their overall reports. A fuller explanation of that effort appears here, and an example of how this looked on one of the sites appears here.
The idea of journalists surfacing links from other sites isn’t new. What is different is that Publish2 enables sites to fuse content sharing with the reporting process, and it also provides ways for journalists to surface the links they gathered in the reporting process. “Collecting links should be a work product,’’ Karp says. “Newsrooms can use and publish those links instead of throwing away that research.”
Karp is rolling out an ambitious project to track spending in the federal stimulus plan, marrying reporters’ content and citizens’ tips, but – and this is important – always through the lenses of journalists. He calls this as a “new ecosystem” of news, that is, a way of understanding that the Web empowers sharing of information, and that journalists have a special role to play in identifying worthy content and evaluating the quality and credibility of others’ reporting.
To participate in Publish2, you go through a short approval process that includes adherence to an ethics code with standards designed to “separate journalism from marketing, PR, paid advocacy or personal expression, which on the web are increasingly difficult to differentiate.”
So, which vision will succeed?
As Crovitz demonstrated at Dow Jones, a subscription strategy can generate substantial revenue and define a uniquely valuable audience.
But as I wrote a few weeks ago here, it’s very hard to ask readers to pay for a publication you’ve trained them for more than a decade to expect to be free. Is there a single example of this having worked in the media business – or any business? (Readers, feel free to cite examples in the comments section.)
Too often, this strategy is portrayed not as a business case, but as a moral argument, viz., good journalism costs a lot of money, and so readers ought to pay for it. That entails its own risks. Or as Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor of the New York Times, told alumni of Columbia’s journalism school Saturday, "Imposing a pay wall could be risky without being bold."
Karp’s business model is also uncertain. He foresees paid, commercial applications of his platform, as well as building a broader advertising network among news organizations.
But what Publish2 also represents is a vision of how journalists can take advantage of each other’s strengths and readers’ knowledge, creating content that transcends what any one newsroom can do.
Right before Karp came to my office last week, he visited the New York Times’ newsroom and made a quick convert in Michael Moss, an investigative reporter. Moss has been writing about food safety, and he asked Karp for ways to maximize reader attention to his investigative work.
Karp turned the tables and “suggested reframing the issue by thinking of ways to generate interest before the stories run,” Moss said. So Moss put out a direct appeal to readers for tips.
While Moss says he got at least a dozen “substantial” leads, what was more important is that he is creating “a community of people who are interested in food safety. … They like that they are participating in the creation of investigative stories.”
So there you have it: One new firm seeks to generate much-needed revenue by building a platform for subscription services, another seeks to generate new forms of journalism with a platform to share and distribute content. It’s hard to reconcile those two visions of journalism’s future.
Here’s an addendum to the points by Crovitz and Karp on news organizations losing their preeminence in the distribution channel. According to Sharon Waxman, Google CEO Eric Schmidt is saying his company will launch an algorithmically based filtering system in six months to surface news “the reader is looking for without knowing they’re looking for it.” That sounds like a turbocharged Google News, personalized without all the muss and fuss of setting it up.
Both the New York Times and Washington Post will “get this treatment,” Waxman writes ominously, and “Google believes it will be able to sell premium ads against premium content.” Will the news organizations make more money? Not directly, said Schmidt, adding only they might get more traffic from Google, which they can monetize on their own.