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The new online newspaper model?

Two separate Internet startups intended to help newspaper publishers get paid for their Web content have recently revealed details of their services. Both are expected to be available in the fall. Journalism Online, from entrepreneur Steven Brill, would feed multiple sources of news content to subscribers. The browser add-on Circulate, being released by CircLabs Inc., is billed as a “personal Web assistant” that learns what Web users want and guides them to it.

Steven Brill

Steven Brill

Brill, known in media spheres as the founder of American Lawyer magazine and Court TV (now truTV), told reporters in New York on Wednesday that Journalism Online would give subscribers one source for content from multiple Web sites. Users could choose the top content on general subjects such as business or entertainment, or receive stories on focused topics such as national politics.

The goal of Journalism Online is to get 10 percent of Web users who read news content online to pay for it. Today, users access newspapers electronically through numerous entities. Journalism Online would act as the agent of publishers to deal with those entities, said Brill, whose fellow principal on the project is former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz.

“We will negotiate wholesale licensing and royalty fees with intermediaries, such as electronic readers, search engines, and other websites,” read a slide in Brill’s presentation.

Circulate, a browser add-on and a potential competitor to Journalism Online, “puts the user at the center of the universe and brings relevant content to the user, based on expressed preferences,” said CircLabs executive vice president Martin C. Langeveld in an e-mail interview.

The concept for Circulate originated several years ago at the University of Missouri’s Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. It is now a private venture coming from CircLabs Inc. in Vermont, with research assistance from the Associated Press and the Institute as an investor.

Users arriving at newspaper content through Circulate would’ve already indicated that’s the type of material they were seeking. Newspapers participating in Circulate could then charge via subscription or á la carte, if they were inclined to charge at all. However, because Circulate is centered around meeting the needs of users, the browser add-on could also be instructed to steer clear of paid content, Langeveld said.

The situation is critical for newspapers because approximately 25 percent of the newspaper industry’s advertising revenue has disappeared since 2005. Journalism Online predicts it will bring millions in yearly revenue to newspapers, with subscribers potentially willing to pay an average $300 a year for a dependable, one-stop source of professional news on the Web.

With Internet newspaper content having been essentially free since the 1990s, skeptics more than abound. Jack Shafer, Slate’s media critic, is particularly dubious of Brill’s plan. He believes Brill is essentially trying to erect an online wall around newspaper content, which has almost always failed.

“Maybe Brill’s business model should find a way to start billing the millions of free-riders who pick up pre-read copies in coffee stores or family members who share newspapers at home,” Shafer blogged.

Langeveld said users may be willing to pay for content, but the change in usage patterns and perceptions of what should be free or paid for will be evolutionary in nature. He equates it to the advent of cable television.

“Once upon a time, television was free – it came in through your antenna. Gradually, however, most people became willing to pay for TV content as cable systems improved signal quality as well as selection,” he said. “The tiered pricing model of cable is something that could eventually develop for online content.”

–Michael Blankenheim

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