By Steve Outing
The debate rages on about whether news publishers — especially newspapers — should charge for news on their websites. Meanwhile, new technology solutions keep popping up to facilitate paid online content, though the decision on what to charge for and what to offer free remains with individual publishers. These new vendors merely enable charging for more things online (and on mobile platforms), and in different ways, though sometimes they make their recommendations known (such as is the case with Steven Brill’s Journalism Online, which clearly has an agenda).
This week we heard about another player in the get-paid-for-content space. A few more details were released about CircLabs, the commercial spin-off of the “InfoValet” project by Bill Densmore and colleagues at the Reynolds Journalism Institute of the University of Missouri. Its upcoming website and smartphone service is called “Circulate,” and it’s designed to put newspapers or other strong local media brands at the center of an online user’s news experience across the entire web, which may include paying for some content piecemeal, or subscribing to premium content across multiple news brands.
The CircLabs website is still a bit vague on exactly what’s planned (hoped-for beta release: this fall). At least it seemed that way for me after reading the FAQ page. But after a phone conversation with CircLabs co-founder Martin Langeveld earlier this week, I now understand the grand plan.
Circulate is foremost an “intelligent news agent” that always travels with you around the web. The idea is that you sign up for Circulate only through your favorite local news source’s website — initially, it will be local newspapers. You might voluntarily agree to pay some fee — say, $5 a month — and that will get you a network-wide subscription, access to premium content at multiple sites, and a downloadable browser add-on. (Such a fee is not necessary for the userto get the browser add-on. And it’s up to the publisher whether or not to experiment with subscription fees. Most Circulate revenues for publishers are expected to come from advertising.)
The browser add-on puts a Circulate banner or box across the top of your browser’s window. (It’s not another toolbar, a la Google Toolbar; rather, it’s more like the horizontal box that appears when you click on an external link on About.com — example.)
What’s in the Circulate top-box are links to news items either on the website you’re on or other websites that might be of interest to you, related to the content on the page you’re viewing and/or to your preferences as the system learns about you. Say, you start out on NYTimes.com and while reading an article click on a link to a story on Time.com. You’ll go to the Time.com article, but the Circulate top-box will remain. (Unlike with About.com, you’ll see the Times.com URL instead of the URL from the site you came from.) And Circulate will recommend other news articles that it thinks you might find interesting, based on the behavior it has recorded of what you’ve seen before. Over time, Circulate is supposed to learn your likes and dislikes, and get better at its recommendations. (It’s similar to how a TiVo DVR learns to recommend TV programs based on what you watch over time.)
The Circulate top-box also will have advertising that will follow you around. So if you live in Boulder, Colorado, like me, when you visit WashingtonPost.com, you’ll see small ads (format to be determined; possibly text ads) for Boulder businesses in the Circulate box, probably targeted to your likes and past behavior, as well as content on the page you happen to be on. In my case, I’ll probably have a lot of local Boulder biking-related ads following me everywhere I go.
This is a nice scheme: Local ads follow you everywhere, and the local publisher that sold you the Circulate membership can charge higher CPMs for the ads. In theory, the newspaper gets to sell ads into any website that you happen to visit, vastly extending the reach of a single news organization far beyond the walls of its own online properties.
Of course, that’s the theory. I can envision several problems arising:
- It will take some convincing for many people to accept having the Circulate box take up valuable prime screen real estate on a web user’s browser, especially if they have a computer with a smaller screen, like a laptop. The “intelligent” content in the Circulate box better be truly useful if a user is going to make that commitment.
- Will other website publishers object that Circulate is making money by putting ads on their websites? Technically, it’s not, of course; a Circulate user is rather adding functionality to his/her web browser, and not impacting the other website, Langeveld says. Still, I won’t be surprised if when Circulate comes out later this year, this issue comes up. (Since some in the newspaper industry object to Google and other aggregators making money from headline and excerpt links to their web content, there’d be some irony should the newspaper industry adopt Circulate in a big way.)
- CircLabs’ founders want Circulate to help rescue the newspaper industry by expanding its online revenues, though Langeveld explains that as the company evolves, it will do business with other types of media companies, even blogs. But for a substantial number of people to sign up for Circulate and pay a monthly fee, it will take a powerful brand to do the convincing. The public’s perception of newspapers has fallen so much that online users savvy enough to recognize the value of Circulate may not put much stock in a newspaper’s brand name.
I would put Circulate in a slightly different category than Journalism Online, since its founders don’t insist or even lobby for news publishers to put a lot of their content behind a pay wall. Rather, Circulate allows a news website publisher to appoint specific special content as not free.
“Not free” means there are options for how a news website publisher might get paid for specific content, and the system can adapt to any payment model a publisher might want, Langeveld says. But the main model being pushed is that if you’re a Circulate member paying a monthly fee via your favorite news website, they you get access to special content at multiple websites, not just the premium content at your home news site.
If you’ve read my previous writing on new and upcoming schemes to get people to fork over money for news content online, you’ll recognize this last model as being similar to that of Contenture and Inamoon, both of which seek to attract many monthly paid members who each get access to special or premium content across a large network of websites.
So if you’re keeping track, add CircLabs’ Circulate as yet another competitor looking to get online users to pay for some content. Yet another one we should hear about soon, as Dow Jones is said to be working on its own content payment system.