Yale Journalism Initiative founder Steven Brill ’72 LAW ’75 laid out his plan to make journalism profitable again at a Law School panel Thursday, just a short distance from where he first came up with the idea.
Before an audience of 18, Brill made the case for his new company, Journalism Online, which will charge customers to use online content generated by media companies across a common platform. The idea for the company, which Brill and his partners unveiled earlier this week, was the brainchild of a conversation from his “Journalism” seminar at Yale, Brill said in an interview Wednesday.
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In fall 2007, Brill said, the mother of one of about 15 students in his seminar — which examines the newspaper business model — called Brill to ask why he was “luring” her daughter into a “profession that is a dead end.” The mother, Brill said, explained that her daughter had student loans to pay off, which she feared would be impossible to do on a journalist’s salary.
“I didn’t really have a good answer for her,” Brill said. “Someone has got to think of a new business model so that people who want to be journalists can get work.”
Journalism Online is Brill’s answer to this problem.
While no major newspaper or magazine publishers have yet signed on to the project as clients, Brill said all the companies he has contacted so far have “expressed interest” in participating in the venture.
The automated system will have four main components, Brill said. First, customers will only need to sign up for one account, because subscriptions to all member publications will be billed to the same account. Second, a monthly “all-you-can-read” subscription — allowing access to all member content — will be available. Third, Journalism Online will negotiate on behalf of its members with companies that use content for free, like Google, to establish a business model that works for everyone. Fourth, it would be a clearinghouse for data on how the various experimental configurations pan out, providing information to answer questions such as how much of an article or how many articles to allow for free.
Brill argued that Journalism Online, and the idea behind it, is essential for the survival of the journalism industry, which has been hit hard by the economic downturn.
“Without it, journalism organizations will keep committing suicide,” Brill said, adding that advertising revenue does not bring in enough income to support the cost of running a journalism company.
Nicole Allan ’09 — a student in Brill’s fall 2007 seminar and a former editor of The New Journal — said she recalled Brill saying in the seminar that someone needed to figure out “an iTunes for journalism,” with the aim of getting readers used to paying a small charge for an article. This phrase seems to have stuck with Brill; in Thursday’s panel, he again referenced the iTunes model.
The transition from free online viewing of articles to a system that charges readers will be less of a shock for the readerships of the small newspapers, Brill said, because they are not used to reading these articles online. But for readers of larger publishers, he said, this switch could require more of an adjustment.
“I’m broke,” Cristina Ruiz ’12 said. “I can’t afford to pay every time I need to look up something for school.”
Brill — who founded Court TV and The American Lawyer — has taught the fall “Journalism” seminar since he helped found the Yale Journalism Initiative in 2006.