TOWARD the end of the three-hour Chicago Journalism Town Hall meeting Sunday afternoon at the Hotel Allegro, the battle lines became clear.
On one side were those who believe journalists will do just fine in the future if they continue to give away their work product on the Internet. All they need to do is be more creative when it comes to content, advertising and funding.
These tended to be the younger, more entrepreneurial members of the overflow crowd of nearly 400 and the 14-person panel of current and former reporters.
On the other side were those who believe the free ride has got to end. All the innovation in the world isn't going to keep news organizations—particularly print-based outlets such as the Tribune—in the black as more and more customers migrate to the Web.
These tended to be the older, more established folks—the ones either stuck in the past or blessed with the wisdom of experience, depending on how you see the argument.
Normally, despite my age, I'd be with the young—the visionaries who embrace change, even with its attendant turmoil. They're the ones who refuse to cling to tradition for its own sake. They're the ones who are most comfortable with the inevitability that progress must destroy even as it rebuilds.
And, in fact, I was on the side of the young until a few months ago. Until then, I believed that large news organizations could thrive online by using the TV/radio broadcast model—by making it difficult to enjoy content without being confronted with advertising messages.
But for a variety of reasons, this model doesn't seem to work for online news, particularly in this economy. Newspapers can and do make money with Web advertising, just not enough to make up for the declines in print advertising.
I'm now a believer in the cable TV model. News organizations that generate significant original content should band together for their own survival and sell group subscription packages for unlimited access to their stories, photos, videos, archives and other offerings.
For, say, $10 a month, a subscriber would have a choice of, say, 50 participating local, regional and national newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations. Another $5 might buy an additional 50 outlets, and so on.
Why the bundling? Because the online subscription model doesn't work for most individual media companies. Readers just browse over to similar, free sites to avoid the hassle and the expense, however minor.
Why not try a pay-per-click model instead? Same reason.
I floated an even more vague version of the cable-TV idea from my seat on the panel Sunday, and while no one shouted me down, no one seconded my motion and the chippy conversation continued.
You can join me (free!) online to point out all the likely drawbacks and pitfalls of this model for distribution of online journalism, including the potentially knotty hurdle of antitrust laws.
I've probably thought of all of the objections already. I've certainly read a lot of naysaying about paid content via the links posted at the event's Web site.
There's no going back, skeptics say. News and commentary want to be free.
Maybe so. But unless someone's bold and unlikely experiment works, those on both sides of the battle lines will be losers.