Can the Press Fix Itself?
Steven Brill answers the question he asked a decade ago.
By Lee Thornton
Whatever happened to Steve Brill? Brill is the creator of a string of enterprises, most recently a company called Clear, maker of the Verified Identity Pass that can whisk the user through airport security, lickety split. He's CEO of what he says is a thriving enterprise, so he's doing very well, thank you.
A lawyer by training, Brill authored two books, founded American Lawyer magazine and took the leap into cable television. He's the creator of the now-defunct Court TV, but he may be best known in journalism circles for the publication that carried his name, Brill's Content.
Launched in 1998, Brill's Content specialized in lengthy and often complex, in-your-face articles that spared media figures and government officials very little. After a significant run, Brill pulled the plug on Content in 2001. But not, he says, because there was any problem attracting subscribers; there were plenty of those, some 480,000 at the end.
"My failure was in determining an advertising base," he says. "If you publish a ski magazine, it's easy" to know who will read it. "I always thought that I could convince people who sold media products..that this was an advertising base, avid consumers of media... That part of it didn't really work."
Even today, Brill does not rule out a return for the magazine. In the meantime, he satisfies his journalistic leanings by teaching twice-a-year seminars at the Yale Journalism Initiative, which he co-founded with First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams.
A decade ago, in February 1999, Brill spoke at Stanford University, delivering a talk titled "Can the Press Fix Itself?" Given the epic meltdown among the nation's newspapers, I called him, thinking he'd have much to say about, oh, non-local ownership, for example. Nope. Deep cuts in newsrooms that necessitate doing more with less? No. Strictly profit driven mega-media companies? Not a chance. Declining standards? No, in fact, Brill likes a lot of what many newspapers are doing, and he reads four papers daily — "holding them in my hands" — and several more online.
But, I reminded him, we're in the midst of a calamity: Tribune Co. in bankruptcy, Washington bureaus closing down, home delivery by the Detroit papers slashed (see The Newspaper Business, page 52), layoffs and cutbacks rampant throughout the industry. Something has gone very wrong. Do we blame it all on the Internet? Well, yes and no, according to Brill.
"If I were to give the same speech today," he says, "I would say the press has to stop committing suicide by giving journalism away for free. Start charging for it, start believing in your product."
For Brill, the nation's newspapers have missed a huge advertising opportunity. "Newspapers didn't do what they should have done at the time I gave that speech, which was to set up their own vibrant [online] classified advertising sections," he says. "Why wouldn't you set up the most robust classified advertising online? The answer is, they said, 'Oh God, if we do that, it'll cut into our print advertising.' They didn't want to cannibalize themselves, which is an understandable reaction, so they let someone else cannibalize them."
And he thinks newspapers were wrong not to charge for their content on the Web. "Newspapers have basically destroyed themselves by giving it away for free," he says. Brill cites as an example the Washington Post. To read its Style section, he says, he once paid hundreds of dollars a year for New York home delivery. "Then Donnie Graham decided that I needed a subsidy. So they now e-mail the Style section for free." The ever-outspoken Brill thinks that's "totally insane."
But there's the widespread expectation that online news will be free. Charging for the product has rarely succeeded.
So if Brill's theory is to work, the model must be reinvented. The Christian Science Monitor, set to become the first major paper to go online-only (except for a weekly edition) in a few months, may be a beginning. The Monitor has cited three goals as part of its "evolving strategy." One is to eliminate major production and distribution costs in order to begin to achieve financial sustainability. In that, Brill would say the Monitor is on the right path.
"The central economic challenge of a newspaper is printing and delivering the newspapers," he says. "Chopping down all these trees and printing and distributing is by far the biggest cost a newspaper has. So the Internet should have let newspapers get rid of their major cost. Instead, they decided to be online but do it for free, so they still do the newspaper, which they charge for, but not as many people want to buy it, because they can get it for free online. And they're giving up not only their classified revenue but their circulation revenue."
Brill is absolutely convinced of the soundness of his opinion — publishers have to raise their self-esteem, treasure what they do and get righteous about charging for it on the Internet. It's not the answer to how the press could have fixed itself a decade ago. For Brill, it's the answer to what needs to be done today.