Right this minute, executives from the largest newspaper companies in America are meeting in a hotel outside of Chicago to discuss how to "Monetize Content." Is this the first step towards a (necessary) industry-wide move to charge for online content? And, uh, is this legal?

The Atlantic's James Warren has all the details of the meeting—organized through the Newspaper Association of America—of "more than two dozen" execs from companies including the New York Times Co, Gannett, McClatchy, the AP, and Hearst. The daylong meeting has several sessions, all focusing on how dying newspapers can squeeze some money out of their popular, but money-poor, online products:

That first session is followed by "Journalism Online: Presentation on proposed service to charge for access to newspaper content and to license that content that (sic) online aggregators" (the assistance of at least one of the many copy editors sent packing by the attendees might have been sought).

Back in February, we endorsed this plan, sort of: "So here's what newspapers need: some collective action. What if, say, the 100 biggest papers in the nation all started charging for online access at once? That would make it much harder to track down quality news for free." The main problem: any collective decision on the part of the biggest newspaper companies to start charging for online content, for the good of one and all, could easily be construed as illegal collusion. That's not allowed in a good capitalist society such as ours. Of course,

1. Having this meeting through a trade group is a convenient way for the companies to cover themselves;
2. We don't know exactly what's being said (If you have details, please email us). And,
3. We're not lawyers, but we imagine that the companies would have to be terribly blatant in their collective decision-making to give some proof of actual illegal collusion, rather than simply companies in a threatened industry making rational business choices.

But this all makes sense. The meeting has received scant publicity. Most newspaper companies aren't in a position to just throw their content behind a pay wall, because readers will just flock elsewhere, as long as free news content is out there. It will take all or most of the quality reporting to start charging (one way or another) roughly at once to give the weaker companies a chance. For most newspapers, continuing to give away all of their content for free is no longer a viable option. So...we'll wait and see what happens.
[The Atlantic]