Summary:

That was fast. Just shy of two years after launch, Steve Brill, Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindery Jr. have sold their “make journalism pay” bus…

Journalism Online Founders: Gordon Crovitz (l), Leo Hindery, Steve Brill (r)

That was fast. Just shy of two years after launch, Steve Brill, Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindery Jr. have sold their “make journalism pay” business to someone who already makes money from publishing. Chicago-based R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co. has acquired Journalism Online and its consumer-facing Press+ paid content management system from the founders and News Corp (NSDQ: NWS). which picked up a minority stake last year. (Release below.)

From a business standpoint, it’s safe to call this a rational exit. It makes sense for Journalism Online to be part of a company like RR Donnelley and for Donnelley to be able to offer a flexible payment system for publishers. JO gets additional investment; RR Donnelley gets to skip the initial R&D phase of building one that works. Jon Housman, president of digital journalism initiatives for News Corp., wouldn’t disclose details but told paidContent the company’s investment “appreciated considerably.”

It’s not quite the result the co-founders had in mind in April 2009 when they announced Journalism Online, LLC, which launched with an undisclosed amount of funding from Hindery’s InterMedia Advisors, LLP and the trademark bravura that accompanies a Steve Brill endeavor. The launch followed Brill’s splashy memo on how to save journalism and the New York Times.

The startup was only on the block briefly and very quietly. Journalism Online was weighing additional funding earlier this year and decided to explore a possible sale. The Jordan, Edmiston Group, Inc. brokered the deal with Donnelley. Crovitz and Brill agreed to stay with the company to manage it.

The timing of their sale with the start of the New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT) ambitious freemium scheme is striking: while Journalism Online had NDAs and affiliates with a large number of publishers and started small trials with some of them, it couldn’t gain a foothold with the NYT and never broke through with a high-profile announcement that matched expectations or hype. The News Corp. investment showed interest from a major publisher and proponent of pay systems but Press+ has yet to show up on the company’s sites. (My understanding is some News Corp. properties are exploring use of Press+ and could start to use it this year.)

But Journalism Online was able to stick fairly much to plan, methodically building a complex system capable of scaling and flexible enough to be used in a variety of circumstances for a wide range of sites. News Corp.’s Housman describes the system as “nimble.” I’ve seen one headline this morning calling JO a “paywall operator” but that’s too limiting a description. Press+ can be used for donations, as is the case with ProPublica and for memberships, in addition to various metered approaches.

More to come.

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Release:

R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company (Nasdaq:RRD) announced today that it has acquired Journalism Online, LLC and its Press+ offering which enables publishers to seamlessly integrate an innovative paid content engine with their websites. Journalism Online’s Press+ system supports publishers as they offer audiences a mix of free and subscription-based premium content. Journalism Online is managed by two of the company’s co-founders, veteran digital-media leaders Steven Brill, founder of The American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, and L. Gordon Crovitz, a former Wall Street Journal publisher.

“Our publishing customers continue to develop multi-channel advertising and editorial strategies and Press+ provides a valuable tool for monetizing content,” said Thomas J. Quinlan III, RR Donnelley’s President and Chief Executive Officer. “We provide solutions across the entire breadth of the publishing supply chain, from content creation and digital asset management through subscription solicitations, processing and renewals. Press+ enhances our offering and opens new avenues for publishers to generate incremental subscription and advertising revenue.”

Steven Brill said, “We are delighted to bring Press+’s innovative capabilities to RR Donnelley and look forward to engaging with the broad array of consumer and b-to-b publishers with whom RR Donnelley has relationships. For nearly 150 years, RR Donnelley has been enabling publishers to reach their customers with a viable, cost effective business model. We are excited to be working with them as they continue that tradition and that mission in the digital age.”

The Press+ offering enables publishers to offer readers a mix of options for subscribing to premium content, including metered and mobile/tablet access, enhanced site functionality, out-of-market access and more. The system also provides publishers a variety of ways to engage readers with paid content, such as day or week passes, print/online bundles, monthly or annual subscriptions, and others that even allow readers to receive credit for previous day passes as they select a longer-term subscription.

L. Gordon Crovitz stated, “The scalable Press+ model enables publishers to quickly test and implement a variety of content distribution strategies. Our experience demonstrates that publishers using Press+ for metered access to web sites and other digital products retain their online ad revenue and readership while adding a valuable revenue stream from online subscriptions.”

“We continue to engage our customers with integrated communications solutions that address both cost compression and revenue enhancement,” added Quinlan.

More information about Journalism Online and Press+ is available at http://www.mypressplus.com.

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