After years of searching for the elusive profit-from-free business model, feverishly throwing staffers over the side to stay afloat, newspaper owners now seem resigned to the fact that journalism, not advertising space, is their chief product. (To give you an idea of how far the insanity had gone, I once had a publisher tell our newsroom that our main competition was direct mail.)
The New York Times is reportedly exploring ways to charge for content - many media experts think the Times will have to move first on this front - and there's a growing chorus of media big wigs saying that newspapers will have to find some way to charge for content to survive.
The best method for extracting payment is still a matter of much debate. Micropayments? Pass the virtual hat? (Yesterday, the New York Times hosted a "battle plan for newspapers" round-table debate. You can read it here.)
But charging directly for content isn't an easy sell, as Slate's founding editor Michael Kinsley learned from experience - and it also presents a moral hazard, as "popular" and "newsworthy" are not often synonymous.
At least the conversation is happening.
Side note: Kinsley's final point is nuts:
With even half a dozen papers, the American newspaper industry will be more competitive than it was when there were hundreds. Competition will keep the Baghdad bureaus open and the investigative units stoked with dudgeon. Competition is growing as well among Web sites that think there is money to be made performing the local paper’s local functions. One or two of these will turn out to be right. And then, who will pay even a nickel for the hometown rag?That's the sound of someone who never acknowledged how many stories in the big papers were hatched and incubated in small papers, and never thought corruption in Scranton was all that interesting.