Insider Q&A: Author Steve Brill Discusses American Journalism, and his New Venture
Why a longform model works in 2015.
Steve Brill knows how to make news. In the first two weeks of 2015, he’s had a cover story in Time, published a book, “America’s Bitter Pill,” which is an expansion of a groundbreaking report from 2013, and made an appearance on “60 Minutes.” The article on which the book is based, “Bitter Pill,” appeared in February 2013 in Time. The 24,000-word report was the first time the magazine had effectively given an entire issue over to a single report.
Brill is the founder of The American Lawyer, Court TV, Brill’s Content, and Press+, a meter-based online subscription service. He’s written several books, including “Teamsters” in 1978, and “After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era,” in 2003. A journalistic icon, entrepreneur and provocateur, Brill is currently reported to be working on a new business with the former executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, which would provide long-form journalism via a metered subscription model. Here Brill discusses his new business and why it’s necessary in the context of the state of media in 2015.
FOLIO: What's the status of your new long-form journalism business? Last story I saw was said you were in talks with the Huffington Post.
Steve Brill: I don't want to go too deeply into where we are with the business. We’re in discussions with a lot of people trying to figure out that the best platforms are for what we want to do.
FOLIO: Describe the economics of the proposed business. GigaOM and others have been skeptical.
SB: Our model is getting people to be enticed by one of the articles and to sign up for a trial offer, and then converting them into a subscription, which is what dozens of magazines have done successfully with Press+. We need 200,000 or 300,000 people over two years—scattered around the world—to pay for compelling stories that they're not going to get anywhere else.
When people speculate about the numbers or the model, it sort of reminds me of that scene in “Annie Hall,” where two people are standing in line waiting to go to the movies and talking about Marshall McLuhan. And Marshall McLuhan pops up and says, “You know nothing of my work.” From what I've read, people just don’t understand the first thing about it.
FOLIO: Why is such a venture needed? What's the niche?
SB: I think a venture like this is needed. It's a pretty big niche. The core economic model really comes out of the success I had when I was able to take over a whole issue of Time and do a really exhaustive, and some said, highly readable report about our healthcare costs.
There's something increasingly challenging or unsatisfying about book publishing. Too many books are done by serious reporters who get an advance, and by the time the book comes out, the material is dated. It’s not economically satisfying for the publisher and it's not economically satisfying for the writer.
FOLIO: What's the condition of American journalism?
SB: The central challenge of journalism today is this: Can you get an economic model that pays people a decent wage for doing credible, compelling work? And our challenge is, ‘Can we produce compelling enough content that people will find valuable?’ That's a challenge I’m comfortable with.
Take what happened to me when I had the Time article in 2013. They all wanted me to cut it or delay it. Only [Time Managing Editor] Rick Stengel was willing to do the whole issue. To get a magazine to invest in 10 or 15 pages, and invest a lot of money in a compelling story, is very difficult to do, because they have a lot of costs that our venture isn't going to have. That speaks to a lot of assumptions about the state of journalism—that is that people won't invest their time or money in fundamentally interesting stories. That's not true of our model.