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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