Why Newspapers Shouldn't Buy What Steven Brill Is Selling

Steven Brill launched American Lawyer magazine, Court TV, Brill's Content and those airport security fast-passes. Now he wants to help newspapers broker their online content. Clue: Smarter people already offer that.

Brill, among the media industry's more colorful entrepreneurs, has been laying the groundwork for today's announcement for some time. Last month he stepped down from his job running the fast-pass company; in February he floated a not-so-"confidential" memo urging the New York Times to resume charging for internet content.

Now he's launched Journalism Online Inc., whose goal is to make it easy for technologically-challenged newspaper companies to sell online subscriptions and individual stories. The company, which Brill co-founded with former Wall Street Journal publisher L. Gordon Crovitz and former telecom executive Leo Hindery Jr.,hopes to sell simple software to implement content payment schemes, while allowing consumers to create a single account, usable across all Journalism Online-affiliated publications.

Brill told the Times:

"Much of the barrier to charging online is the transaction friction, as opposed to the actual cost. With this system, you'd have a single password, give your credit number just once."

Trouble is, people with much more tech and retail cred than Brill already offer ways to do the same thing. PayPal and Amazon both offer micropayments interfaces to programmers, as we've noted before. Amazon's sophisticated system can be easily customized, but can also be implemented as simply as including an HTML snippet on a Web page.

Brill has no prayer of competing with either Amazon or PayPal when it comes to scalability, fraud protection, or number of existing accounts. Like countless consultants and software companies before him, Brill's only hope is to convince old-school newspaper publishers they're better off buying overpriced content management "solutions" than building simple, reliable websites using off-the-shelf technology and in-house programming.

Given that newspapers publishers' single biggest Web idea this year has been to recycle the very old "let's charge for content" meme, he's probably on to something.