Philadelphia’s newspapers are entering the uncharted territory of nonprofit ownership. Meanwhile, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill says newspapers are clueless about paywalls and generating the content readers will pay to read.
For Portlanders, both trends may seem like more promising options than witnessing the slow shrinkage of The Oregonian.
In Philadelphia, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest handed over ownership of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com to the Institute for Journalism in New Media, a newly created arm of the Philadelphia Foundation. The keys to the publications came with a $20 million endowment from Lenfest.
But largesse won’t keep the presses rolling in Philadelphia. Earnings from the endowment will be given as grants for reporting projects and journalistic innovation. The publications will retain independent management and remain dependent on advertising and subscription revenues.
While reaction in Philadelphia was generally positive, Brill is cajoling newspapers to take bolder steps that may seem counterintuitive to newspaper owners. Brill says newspapers should beef up their reporting staffs to produce content that people will pay to read through paywalls. The challenge today, Brill says, isn’t the idea. It’s having anything left in the newsroom worth paying for.
"We had a meeting at one big paper – I think it was the Atlanta Journal Constitution,” Brill told James Warren, writing for Poynter. "They were psyched to do this, but one editor walked us out of the building and said, 'It's a good idea but I'm not sure we still have anything left to sell.’"
Brill cited an example of a Montana newspaper with a successful paywall. "They were covering the local school board, local politics, local sports – and people wanted to buy it,” he said.
Categorizing newspaper owners as something less than “swashbucklers,” Brill predicts, "Some smart venture capitalist is going to bottom feed a large company and bring in people who do it right. That means beefing up the website, making it the place for information and news in a community and getting people to log in so often, you will be able to get by with only printing, say, once a week, maybe on Sunday. And online will be a seven-day-a-week product that everybody will be happy with and will be self-sustaining.”
Brill sees his mission as "hand holding with publishers and people in newsrooms to get them to support investing in the newsroom.”
"This is not a group of business people who are real business people,” he says. "They either inherited monopolies or were, by then, part of big chains in the hands of debt holders. The industry wasn't full of high quality, big thinkers, in terms of the people running it, since for many years it didn't have to be.
"For years, if you had a paper, for many advertisers, you were the only game in town. If the Oldsmobile dealer wanted to announce a sale, you got the ad. Now there isn't even an Oldsmobile dealer, and the car dealers who are left have multiple ways to market their cars and infinitely more efficient ways to market used cars. The underpinning of the business was eviscerated and in many places the people who inherited the businesses weren't prepared, since they never had to really compete.”
Brill believes investigative journalism is key to paid content, though he concedes readers are unlikely to be willing to pay its full cost.
“In the history of the world, if you are talking about quality journalism, where you have to pay people to do real reporting and go travel to do interviews, it would be hard to name the quality journalism organization that existed solely on advertising revenue,” Brill admits. "The closest is the broadcast networks in the '60s, '70s and '80s when they had 90 percent of the eyeballs in the country. And even then their news operations mostly didn't make money and were really considered a public service.”
Brill, 65, earned his cred in 1978 with an exposé book about the Teamsters Union. A graduate of Yale Law School, Brill founded Court TV (now truTV), a cable and satellite channel that gives viewers an inside look at courtrooms. In 1998, he launched Brill’s Content as a media watchdog, which ended with a controversial piece alleging independent counsel Ken Starr leaked grand jury proceedings involving the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Brill has written attention-grabbing pieces about educational inequality and profit-making gaming in the health care industry. He most recently produced a 15-part documentary about Johnson & Johnson titled, “America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker.”
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.