Will newspapers make an offer you can’t refuse? Or will you?

The buzz has been thick over the hush-hush meeting of the nation’s top newspaper publishers this week in suburban Chicago. Execs from chains from Gannett to McClatchy to MediaNews and Hearst are among the group meeting quietly to discuss future revenue models that hopefully will pull newspapers from the financial quagmire they’ve been mired in for the past several years.

The real buzz is that this may be a unified effort by newspaper companies to develop a strategy to charge for online content.

Former Tribune editor and reporter James Warren likens the confab to the famed 1950s meeting of the nation’s Mafia chieftains. (It’s ironic that this meeting is in Rosemont, whose former mayor had been accused of being a buddy to the Chicago mob during his 50-year tenure).

While such a comparison may be stretching things a bit, this “discreet discussion on business models” does show the potential of being an orchestrated effort by the industry to control pricing of content. And if that is the case, the argument is there that the news industry — which has had a long history of fighting collusion and monopolization of enterprise — is itself in violation of anti-trust measures. Slate’s Ben Shaffer makes that argument here.

Whatever the outcome, we can only hope that it does not come down to a unified effort to local down content. As I’ve mentioned before, readers would be willing to pay a premium, but it needs to be on their terms.

I’m not sure our industry leaders understand that their audience is no longer a “mass” audience. People are turning away from newspapers because they can get their news and information “self-serve,” through their own methods of filtering and through their ‘micro-communities.” Until these execs realize that and start refining current products and developing new products that are accepted into these microcommunities, readers — and potential readers — will look at online fees as simply a form of “protection money.”

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‘Soft parade’ falling flat?

A couple of follow-ups:

*My item a couple of months ago about the upstart San Diego News Network held hope for an emerging revenue model for online media. Unfortunately, that apparently isn’t happening, according to San Diego CityBeat. SDNN has cut back its stipends to bloggers and writers, as well as eliminated its freelance budget. A review by CityBeat shows that ad sales have not been too brisk, also.

As a result, a number of staff has left, leaving the bulk of the work to fall on the remaining area editors. And just how many San Diegians were coming to the site is also unclear.

The rule of thumb is that a new web venture needs about 18 months to build a sustainable readership, but in today’s economic climate, it’s harder for new ventures to ride that timeline if it cannot cover the costs and maintain staff morale during that time.

We can still be hopeful for SDNN. But it if doesn’t make it, at least they tried. And that’s more than you can say for many media businesses right now.

* Washington Post’s Paul Fahri writes in the American Journalism Review about the Twitter explosion, and questions whether it’s just the latest information plaything. I agree with his final assessment that it’s what you make of it.

But keep in mind that in the 1980s — when I worked at Radio Shack salesman selling the new TRS-80 home computer — computers in the home was considered a play toy for the wealthy. Again, we told our new customers the potential of these devices were “what you made of it.”

Thirty years later, home computers have changed the culture and the way we conduct our lives. Twitter may not be the answer, but it is playing a major role in the way people get and share information.

As a business, we need to respect that, and we need to modify or create a product or products that address that.

Will I pay for news online? Only if I don’t have another choice

I spent a day this week speaking about the future of news with a group of media and communication students at North Central College in Naperville. Amid the discussion I posed the question to the 20-something students: “Would you be willing to pay for online news?”

Their consensus was yes, but only if there is no other alternative.

This may be a welcome sign for newspaper publishers who are looking into closing the door on free content. Papers from Newsday to the Denver Post and, most recently, the Kankakee Daily Journal are planning to charge for content on their websites.

But — as one of these college students pointed out — readers may not pay for online content if it does not appeal to them. This students used the Tribune’s Red Eye as an example of a newspaper/web site combo that he would be willing to pay for. Not so for the parent Chicago Tribune.

So if publishers are ready to start charging for online access, are their online products worth buying? If your newspaper’s Web site is a mirror image of your print product, you’d better think twice before setting up the tollbooth.

Keep in mind web readership is vastly different that print. Brand loyalty that used to be a part of newspaper readership does not translate onto the web (credibility, yes; loyalty, no). If a potential reader isn’t buying your print edition, what incentive does he have to buy into your web site?

What does your site offer that a current or new reader can’t get from somewhere else? Is it targeted to a specific audience, or are you still running your site to appeal to a mass audience? What keeps your site relevant and useful to the reader? If you were an online reader, what would make you want to buy into your web site?

And, if I find something of value through an aggragator such as Google, will I be able to access it for a nominal fee (if not free?), or will I need to buy a
subscription into the site?

Finally, as an online subscriber, will I forced to sit through the annoying pop-up ads that I’ve had to endure when content was free? Will my subscription buy my way out of in-your-face advertising? Now there’s a conundrum for publishers to ponder.

This is, of course, if readers do accept paid content. As we saw with the Denver Post poll, a large majority of Post readers don’t believe the online version is valuable enough to purchase.

But it does come down to the basics. You have value in your product, which we must remember is news and information — not paper and HTML code. How you package that and deliver it to your readers will constitute its value, and whether it a value they are willing to pay for.

*If my recent post about the values of Twitter wasn’t enough to sway you, check out this episode of PBS’s MediaShift, titled “Twitter Mania: Will Twitter Change the World?” I suspect it already has, and agree this will be more than a passing fan. Twitter may fade away in the future, but something else will sure replace it.

Flotsam for today

* Has the industry really come down to this? A $13,000 auction bid on an internship? At the Huffington Post?

Granted, the auction is for a worthy cause and the money will not go directly into Post owner Arianna Huffington’s pocket. But considering Huffington Post is built on the backs of people providing content at no cost (or at best, very little cost) to Ms. Huffington, this latest offering just helps to seal her image of the Marie Antoinette of journalism.

I just hope the winning bidder isn’t expecting a return on his initial investment. Not from Ms. Huffington, at least.

* Another reason why publishers shouldn’t jump on the paid-content wagon yet. Just after MediaNews Corp. announced it would create a paid-content system for its newspaper web sites, the flagship Denver Post asked readers if they would be willing to pay to get stories on the web. Media guru Steve Outing got a hold of the results. A whopping 83 percent of Denver readers said “no.”

Now I’m sure MediaNews’ readership in Denver is not that much different that those in California and elsewhere, so I hope that Dean Singleton and his minions carefully read what his readers are saying in the comments. Basically, they reinforce the notion that reader loyalty is no longer based on the product. The “I can get my news elsewhere for free” argument continues to come up, and this is very true.

If you want to force paid content onto readership, it will have to be done in a unified move by the entire industry. Everyone from the New York Times to the Podunk Bugle will have to lock down its content simultaneously. Even in this crisis, I don’t see that type on unity developing.

Instead of locking down content, MediaNews (and everyone else) should be focusing on new, innovative products that would slice and dice the information into convenient, personalized packages. People may be willing to pay for that.

* I’ve been criticized for my immediate dissing of the Kindle DX and its potential for newspapers. I don’t think the Kindle DX is a bad product. In fact, I think it serves a wonderful purpose, especially for high school and college students who can download several hundred pounds worth of textbooks into a viable and portable device. But for newspapers and magazines, the Kindle DX cannot replicate the newspaper experience. In fact, no electronic reader can replicate the newspaper experience.

That is why, to gain new readers, newspapers should be looking at a device that can provide the interactive experience of an iPhone (or at least a 2.0 website) in a viable and portable device. Here’s a video I found on YouTube that comes close to my vision of the e-paper experience:

This is a nice start. But imagine adding interactivity. The ability to touch a story and get more information, like previous stories, links, or a comment window. Touch a photo and it turns into a video. Touch an ad and get more information on the product and the ability to buy it.

Now that’s an experience you can’t get from print!

What I would tell journalism graduates

I spend a lot of time talking to high school and college classes about the future of the news industry. But given the current state of affairs, I wonder if the journalism’s Class of 2009 is as confident to enter the this world as the rest of their fellow grads.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the clout or a PhD to give commencement addresses at most universities. You won’t see me at the podium of a prestigious journalism school this year, but if I were there, this is how I would advise the Class of ’09:

Congratulations, graduates. You’ve achieved a tremendous milestone in your lives. After four or more years of developing the skills you need to become a bona fide journalist, you now stand ready to apply those talents into your livelihood.

But keep this in mind. Once you’ve packed up your diploma and worldly possessions and step beyond the campus limits, all entitlements you’ve enjoyed during the first quarter of your lives will cease to exist.

At that point, you are on your own.

And what you face seems insurmountable. As journalism graduates, you are entering an industry in crisis. Newspapers are cutting back significantly or folding. Television and radio, while not as highly publicized, face similar declines in viewership and revenue. The Internet offers promise, but the successful ventures so far tend to be those that get by on shoestring staffs and budgets.

As as you look for a job in your field, you won’t be alone. You’ll be competing with more than 9,000 journalists who have been laid off since January of this year. Add them to the 16,000 people out of work in 2008, and you see the line for existing jobs is very long. In fact, one out of every four journalism job that existed 20 years ago no longer exist. You’re joining a growing group of people vying for fewer jobs.

Despite the gloomy forecast, I urge you to not give up.

We need you.

Despite appearances, the news industry is not heading towards extinction. It is undergoing an evolution. After the death of dinosaurs, the earth developed new life that grew and prospered. Likewise, from the death of the old media, a new, more exciting and prosperous media will emerge.

And we need you for that evolution.

For you see, the media is not dying because people don’t want news. Contrary, news readership continues to grow. More people are tuned in to what is happening today than ever before. Traditional news sites like the New York Times and Washington Post have highly-trafficked Web sites. Sites like CNN and BreakingNews are among the most followed on Twitter.

What is changing is how people get their news. That is something the current media refused to acknowledge from the outset, and it is the reason we are in trouble today. People may not want to read a paper at the breakfast table anymore, but they still want to know what is happening in their town, their region, their world.

People will still read a good story. The difference is that we must now give it to them on their terms.

And that’s where we need your help.

We need dedicated, passionate people who can tell a great story. But we need people who also understand their audience and what they want. You’ve grown up in a world that we older folk have trouble grasping, and you may see new, innovative ways of getting the story out that we are blinded to. Together, we can make the industry evolve into something that is relevant, vibrant and informative to readers.

So don’t give up.

If you’re lucky enough to land a job, congratulations. Put your best into it and be active in helping your company evolve. Be idealistic, but also be realistic. Don’t be dismayed by the setbacks, but keep your vision and help us achieve it. Don’t give up.

If you are still looking, continue to practice your craft however you can. Start a blog, network with friends, do freelance work in your spare time, do volunteer work. Continue to refine and hone your skills. Get a job to pay the bills, but don’t give up.

If you have an idea that may help the industry, try to go out on your own with it. Great ideas don’t always come out of board rooms. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to name one great idea that originated in a board room. If you are successful, you will be noticed. If you aren’t, cut your losses and move on. Stay optimistic. Don’t give up.

Above all, don’t stop learning. Everything I learned in college became obsolete within 10 years. You’ll be extremely lucky if everything you learned outlasts your college loan payments. You don’t need to go back for a masters degree, but continue to read up on industry trends, take advantage of classes offered from community colleges to industry groups like the Poynter Institute. Expand your skills. Knowledge is gold. Continue to invest in it.

Yes, the headlines are bleak and the outlook is bleaker for the news industry. There is not much to hang hope on right now. But there is hope. We cannot allow the news industry to die, for to do so would endanger a key foundation from which our society was built on.

There is hope. And though you may not realize it now, you are a very big part of it.

Don’t give up.

Is this the future of newspapers? Maybe, maybe not…

A number of firms are looking at developing electronic devices to help do to the newspaper industry what the iPod did to help the music industry. Plastic Logic, News Corp. and Hearst have formed a partnership to develop an electronic reader similar to the popular Kindle, only in a larger size. The idea is to have reader that can replicate the size and feel of a newspaper so that paper elements, such as photos and advertisements, can be replicated. The cooperative effort is expected to begin sometime next year, according to the New York Times.

This week, Amazon, maker of the Kindle, announced it would create a similar device that would be on the market later this year. Like the Plastic Logic device, it would also be a larger format — basically the size of an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper — and would also accommodate newspaper elements.

The idea is that once these devices are on the market, newspaper can sell their content in downloadable subscriptions to these consumers. Think of it, you can get your morning paper without stepping outside your front door.

Will this be the savior for the floundering industry? Not in this current thinking. While e-papers have the potential of creating a new reading experience for consumers, simply plopping a digital version of your ink-and-paper product won’t be the answer. Look at your readers? They like what you’re giving them now and — based on your age demographics — will probably be resistant to moving away from paper.

Now look at your non-readers. Why aren’t they picking up- newspapers? It’s not because they’re adverse to ink-and-paper. It’s what’s on it. It’s dated. It’s stagnant. It gives them nothing new.

If e-papers are going to work and be profitable, they are going to have to be as dynamic and relevant as your Web site. Think video. Think audio. Think 24/7 updating.

Think ‘Minority Report.’

In that movie, the copy of USA Today a commuter was reading on the subway changed its front page changed as he was reading it.

E-papers will need to be that, and more. They’ll need to interactive. If I want to comment on a story, I should be able to do that by pressing a button on the story. I should be able to play the 911 call on a murder story, or watch the video of a soldier returning to my hometown. If I see an interesting ad, I should be able to touch and it will bring up that merchant’s Web site. If I’m reading a movie review, I should be able to select a link that takes me to a listing of theaters where it’s playing, along with times and even a link to Fandango or similar ticket-purchasing site. A restaurant review? How about giving me a link to its Web site, and a way to make online reservations.

If I can fold it and put it under my arm for easy carrying, that would also be great.

That will sell e-papers.

Such a product would not only be valuable to potential readers, but to potential advertisers as well. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

UPDATE: WEDNESDAY, MAY 6: Amazon chief Jeff Bezos unveils the larger Kindle DX. At $500 with a black and white screen and limited interactivity, the major use will probably be for college students, as the new, bigger Kindle will be able to handle the more complex — and expensive — college textbooks.

However, the DX in its current form will most likely make publisher lean to providing the formatted print version in an electronic form. Which is sad, because what will be learned is that people don’t want the print version on an electronic sheet.

Reading a newspaper is more about getting information. It’s a sensory experience of visual and tactile cues. That does not translate onto an electronic screen.

For newspapers, the DX is a fax machine in an iPhone world. The iPhone experience is quite different, combining visual and tactile cues to create instant gratification — an item missing in the new Kindle. More will be needed from this product to create a reader experience that will make them “need” this format — and be willing to pay a premium for it.