Could save the Marin Independent Journal?

2 June 2009

This morning, my Twitter feed linked to a Neiman Journalism Lab piece by Zachery Seward with more info on how Journalism Online – the paid content startup being organized by Steven Brill, Leo Hindery and Gordon Crovitz – will work. (disclosure: back when Brill’s Content folded, Mother Jones took over its mailing list; I’ve met Leo Hindery on several occasions over the past couple of years – he has no financial relationship with Mother Jones, although that’s not for lack of trying on my part)

Reading just a little bit between the lines, Journalism Online sits on a 3-legged stool (or will when it launches: Brill told Seward they’re still aiming for a fall opener).

Leg one: the cream. Brill and his partners

… believe publishers, by offering a mix of paid and free content, can wring subscription revenue out of 5-10 percent of their existing monthly visitors while maintaining 88 percent of page views and 91 percent of ad revenue.

Okay: 1 out of every 10 or 20 readers is what they’re counting on to pay the freight (through a mix of annual, monthly, and per article payments, apparently).

Leg two: the wall. It’s hard to imagine Journalism Online working unless the big newspaper chains and names play ball. A lot of them. That wall needs to be high and wide. Otherwise: leakage, big time.

And leg three: the hammer. Towards the end of his article Seward briefly reminds us that

David Boies and Ted Olson have been retained by Journalism Online as antitrust counsel and “to formulate negotiating strategies” with search engines and aggregation sites.

Indeed. Makes me wonder if the real story with Journalism Online is this: to renegotiate the ad revenue share with Google and the other big aggregators. Why mess with a gazillion individual end users when you can get so much from so few? Seward doesn’t really get into this: his focus was on Brill’s pitch to newspaper publishers who recently gathered by the Newspaper Association of America outside of Chicago.

So I was thinking: I guess I could see a pay-for-news deal working for the big nationals: The New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. But the local dailies?

Here’s my smell test: Until about six months ago, Rachelle and I subscribed to the Marin Independent Journal (circulation: about 28,500 in a county with a population of 248,096) the afternoon daily that’s served Marin County in one form or another since 1861. We did it for one reason: local news about Marin County. We wanted to know what was going on.

Well, let’s be real: local news in the “IJ” amounts to two or maybe three stories on the front page each day, and then a whole lot of re-purposed PR chatter for the inside “Marin” section. Not too long ago, though, every so often the IJ did come up with a halfway decent investigative piece or expose about life in the county (and Rachelle will tell you, there’s a hidden side to this uber-wealthy county that needs to see the light of day; she works with a lot of folks in serious trouble day in and day out).

We cancelled our sub to the  IJ late last year to save a little bit of money, and because, well, it just didn’t make sense to be paying money for such a paltry level of local news coverage. We cancelled our sub to The New York Times around the same time, too, which was more of a wrenching cultural adjustment for me than a loss in the news of the day (my grandfather taught me lots of things, but three things stand out: read a good newspaper every day, don’t cross a picket line, and never, ever root for an American League team).

These days, the Marin IJ is owned by Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group, and if Singleton’s words are to be believed, sooner than later online readers should expect to have some/most/all of the paper’s local content pushed behind a paywall.

I can’t imagine anyone halfway sane paying money to see what’s behind that wall. It’s true, a Marin-specific, halfway decent quality blog or citizen journalism site has yet to appear, but I think that would be the single most likely outcome of a paywall for the Marin IJ’s local content. I don’t look to the IJ for movie, music or theater listings, restaurant reviews. Not for national news (it’s all wire service anyway). Sports? Sure, if you follow high school sports, but after that, nope.

That’s why I think Steve Outing has it exactly right predicting that Singleton’s paywall plan won’t work. Newspapers, Outing says,

must create new types of high-value, probably niche, content, communities, and/or services that are unique enough that people will be willing to pay for them.

That’s not easy, when so many journalism shops have been so thoroughly hollowed out. It’s a whole different ball game.

And that’s also why I’m wondering whether it’s too late for Journalism Online’s three-legged stool to do much good for all but the big guys.

10 Responses to “Could save the Marin Independent Journal?”

  1. […] the lines at JO’s real intent. Steve Katz of Mother Jones shares my speculation when he wrote on his blog today, after reading the Seward interview with Brill: “Towards the end of his article Seward […]

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