Steve Outing today pointed me to Journalism Online, a new attempt to charge for journalistic content. The press release makes it seem they’ll be offering readers a way to pay one price and pick from among paid content they want, and publishers a chance to make their efforts available at a price point they choose. Users will be able to pick stories a la carte, or via subscription. The release frequently mentions newspapers, but also says there are talks with magazines.

The release says ads, alone, can’t and never have paid for quality journalism. Maybe not. And we’ll find out if J.O. is right that Americans will pay for journalism because they understand it needs to be supported. I’m not so sure. They will pay for convenience, ease of use, utility and access they wouldn’t otherwise have.

What will make this work, I think, is from the reader side:

  1. if they can get what they want with ease
  2. if the price point is low enough that convenience outweighs the desire to go hunting for the info elsewhere (think iTunes)
  3. If there are enough publications available
  4. if the content is not commoditized or the kinds of stuff available so many other places that it’s easy to find. (I doubt breaking news or big stories available all over the place will make much money.)

… and for publishers:

  1. the ability to make additional incremental revenue from content they couldn’t get on their own.
    strong Incentives to cooperate in the project rather than go it alone, as they’re so used to doing
    ease of installation and use
  2. flexible pricing — Journalism Online is promising to let publishers charge their own prices and adjust them.
  3. data, which J.O. is also promising, to allow quick changes in pricing, story mix, etc. (“Journalism Online will provide reports to member publishers on which strategies and tactics are achieving the best results in building circulation revenue while maintaining the traffic necessary to support advertising revenue.”)
  4. assurance their content won’t be pilfered, will be in an environment they can trust in every sense
  5. enough revenue and revenue share that they’ll feel it’s a fair shake, that J.O. isn’t taking too much of a cut.

I can imagine some arduous negotiations with publishers, many of whom will take the position that their content is invaluable, deserves a higher percentage, and so on. J.O. will have to hold the line and figure out incentives, as well as, perhaps, cut some special deals for must-have publications. I also can’t help but wonder what scale Journalism Online needs to break even. It would seem to be a perfect model from their standpoint — they are a platform, with relatively low cost, paying nothing to create content, and can scale at little incremental cost. If the application they provide goes on the publisher site, even easier for J.O. The only stipulation for publishers is that they charge for at least some of their content, meaning they can still make much of it free, and, presumably, get the benefits of linking, SEO and the like.

It will be a delicate and difficult balance among all the participants, and finding terms they all can live with. There will have to be adjustments over time. Other experiments along these lines — including Congoo, in which I was a minor participant — have not been overwhelming successes. Still, with Gordon Crovitz participating, it could work. He’s the former Wall Street Journal publisher who’s been lionized for helping build the WSJ.com brand to, maybe $100 million per year in subscriptions, a figure Larry Kramer mentioned on Naked Media yesterday (we’re promised the on demand version will be ready this week; check NakedMedia.org).

What media consumer isn’t enticed by the idea of paying one reasonable price and then getting whatever you want from, say, a swathe of subscription newspapers and magazines? This was an attraction of AOL in earlier days (they offered Time Inc. magazines through the service), and got them some added subscriptions. What if we could also add publications from Conde Nast, Meredith, Hearst and others? What if it were also the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal? (But can J.O. really herd all these cats together?) J.O. will have to be significantly less expensive than existing aggregators like Factiva, as well. And, Crovitz had the WSJ to work with — that’s was a preeminent must-have brand for a well-heeled, info-hungry mobile audience.

The other founders are Court TV and American Lawyer founder Stephen Brill, and former cable exec Leo Hindery.