Journalism Online Offers Up 'Letters Of Intent' From Possible Affiliates — But No Names

Journalism Online, the new make-journalism-pay venture from Steve Brill, Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindery, has letters of intent from newspaper publishers representing 506 newspapers, magazine and “leading global news sites” but isn’t identifying any by name. That’s after weeks of promising a list of interested publishers. They will be announced, the company’s founders insist, but by the publisher instead of a group press release. (One company that likely won’t make an announcement but I believe to have signed a letter is Guardian News & Media, our corporate parent. Neither company would comment on whether GNM is involved.)

Instead, Journalism Online is issuing a status report this afternoon.

Crovitz told paidContent: “We think this is a pretty good milestone going past 500 publications, that many visitors.” And, yes, the aggregate numbers sound impressive, especially when you consider that the company itself launched in April: websites with more than 90 million monthly visitors, 176 dailies, 330 non-dailies. The publishers who have signed on in this phase are exploring a variety of options, with much more focus on the Freemium concept than on shutting off all access. Still, when it comes to publishers involved, the only numbers that will matter will be those that move from letters of intent to affiliates who actually launch with Journalism Online this fall, and eventually, that stick around. (See the release here).

Brill and Crovitz told me in a joint interview this morning that they’re aware of how some people will view the decision to focus on numbers, not names. As Brill said, someone like me might wonder, “Are we making this up or not?” But, he added, “the story here is that the conversation really has shifted from if to how and when.” This is where cynics wonder if publishers want to be associated publicly with the project. Brill and Crovitz say they’ve been told by some that it would be clearer and more straightforward to do it separately. There’s also the antitrust issue: while the deals and discussions are one-to-one between the publisher and Journalism Online, a group announcement might suggest otherwise. Brill: “It’s important that a third party do this venture. We don’t want to be perceived to be some kind of group.”

I believe they have the letters of intent. In fact, I have good reason to believe one publisher is our corporate parent, Guardian News & Media, although neither company will comment. But GNM is a good example of why the letters aren’t as meaningful as, say, a launch announcement. Executives have ruled out a pay wall. (Digital director Emily Bell was quite direct, calling it “a stupid idea.”) Instead, GNM is exploring other ways to create new revenue streams, such as membership, and is looking at a variety of potential partners and vendors. Signing a letter of intent — complete with NDA — gives a publisher like Guardian the chance to look under the hood, see whether or not it is something that fits in with their ideas and goals, and simply move on if Journalism Online isn’t perceived as a solution. It’s not a commitment to anything beyond sharing information at this point.

From Brill’s view, those who sign up and stay on the journey, have “nothing to lose and much to gain by doing this with us, and having it demonstrated to them. We offer much more flexibility than anything they’ll be able to to create.”