Media General to use Google One Pass in Virginia, Journalism Online metered model in N.C.

Google's announcement today in Germany of a new One Pass service to collect fees for viewing content digitally is being reported by the tech press correctly as a shot across Apple's bow.

As Google frames it, the service will be easier to use for both publishers and readers and give publishers a better cut of the fees than the subscription plan for apps that Apple announced Tuesday.

One Pass also jumps Google into the middle of the American newspaper industry's continuing exploration of digital pay walls.  And it positions the computer giant in direct competition with the Steven Brill/Gordon Crovitz startup Journalism Online and its Press+ system.

Google's first U.S. newspaper client will be Media General. Reid Ashe, Media General's chief operating officer, told me in a phone interview that details are still being worked out but that One Pass will begin to be used later this year at the chain's flagship paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Selected premium content will be available only to those who pay but in a number of formats.

Ashe said that Media General has just begun experimenting with a Journalism Online paid system at its 17,000-circulation daily in Hickory, N.C. There, a metered model allows 15 free views a month before a reader is asked to pay for a monthly pass.

Essentially, Ashe said, the company plans to run the competing systems in parallel and see what it can learn about the merits and problems of each.

Crovitz, Journalism Online's co-founder, told me he welcomes the competition, and thinks the Press+ system already in use at two dozen papers and sites will prove superior.

"It gives publishers exclusive access to customer data, and they want to keep their customers their own," he said. In Google's One Pass, customer access is shared. For subscriptions ordered directly through apps, Apple has control of the customer relationship -- an arrangement that has drawn heavy criticism already.

Crovitz said the other major advantage is that Journalism Online is neutral.  "Publishers tell us that they don't want to get in the middle of a fight between Apple and Google Android," he said.

Google One Pass is a built-out version of a paid online model it proposed in response to a request for information from the Newspaper Association of America in September 2009.

NAA senior vice president Randy Bennett recalled that the Google plan described then would give publishers freedom to set prices, varying ones if they chose, and to let consumers have a single log in and password for their purchases.

More than a dozen proposals were received back then, some from big companies including Yahoo, IBM and Microsoft, one from Journalism Online and several from companies now dormant or out of business.

"We were trying to expose our members to a variety of companies" and solutions, Bennett said. "It was never our intention to endorse one."

In the 18 months since, tablets have been introduced and figure prominently in industry discussions of potential paid content schemes. Also, Bennett said, much of the industry is moving away from the idea of a hard pay wall for their websites, favoring instead a metered model like the one The New York Times plans to introduce later this quarter or a collection of premium content which users must pay to access.

Also, several publishers announced earlier this year a collaborative venture named Ongo, that will allow subscribers to view top articles selected from several different newspapers for a $6.95 monthly fee.

Bennett added that there seems to be some renewed interest in an ad-wall concept that would present the user the choice of paying a fee per article or viewing a short ad collection first and getting the article for free.

There is no consensus yet on the right way for newspapers to monetize online content, and some publishers -- like McClatchy -- insist that a free, ad-supported model still makes the most sense.

Now newspapers in the exploratory stages will have at least three major vendors to choose among -- Journalism Online, Google and Apple. And some, like The New York Times, may decide instead to develop their own home-grown payment systems.


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