Shhhh. Newspaper Publishers Are Quietly Holding a Very, Very Important Conclave Today. Will You Soon Be Paying for Online Content?

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Here's a story the newspaper industry's upper echelon apparently kept from its anxious newsrooms: A discreet Thursday meeting in Chicago about their future.

 

"Models to Monetize Content" is the subject of a gathering at a hotel which is actually located in drab and sterile suburban Rosemont, Illinois; slabs of concrete, exhibition halls and mostly chain restaurants, whose prime reason for being is O'Hare International Airport. It's perfect for quickie, in-and-out conclaves.

 

There's no mention on its website but the Newspaper Association of America, the industry trade group, has assembled top executives of the New York Times, Gannett, E. W. Scripps, Advance Publications, McClatchy, Hearst Newspapers, MediaNews Group, the Associated Press, Philadelphia Media Holdings, Lee Enterprises and Freedom Communication Inc., among more than two dozen in all. A longtime industry chum, consultant Barbara Cohen, "will facilitate the meeting."

 

One hopes it displays the same sense of purpose as, say, troubled world leaders did at Yalta in 1945 or, in a rather less respectable sector of the economy, beleaguered mob bosses did at a legendary Apalachin, New York, confab in 1957.

 

Cross one's fingers on their behalf, even if there's worry that some don't really possess the nerve and vision to exit a mess for which they hold significant responsibility.

 

There was a dinner Wednesday and, according to the agenda, Thursday begins with a quick declaration of goals at 8 a.m., then an 8:10 a.m. session labeled, "Fair Syndication Consortium/Attributor." It's described as a "presentation on technology/service to track content on the Web and to extract payments from third-parties and ad networks that have appropriated newspaper content."

 

 Presumably, Google, Yahoo! and any one of thousands of websites could, and should, get mentioned with scant reverence. Perhaps the age of content theft is coming to an end.

 

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).

 

That presentation would seem quite important, with many conflicting ideas floating about whether charging will work and how to even try. The stark reality is that the industry will have to soon start demanding payment for at least some of its online handiwork.

 

There are various ways to go about it, and one size won't fit all. During their days of print advertising plenty, the people in this room, or their predecessors, made the catastrophic, myopic decision to not charge. They gave away their expensive efforts for free. They by and large misjudged the significance of the internet.

 

It's now safe to wager that most attendees, who were scheduled to include Michael Golden of the New York Times, Gary Pruitt of McClatchy and Tom Curley of the Associated Press, will be dragged into charging for at least some online content. Cross one's fingers that a dirty little industry secret, namely the qualitative decline of many papers (the New York Times a notable exception) amid rampant cost-cutting, doesn't now give even long-loyal consumers legitimate pause about paying up.

 

Ultimately, many in attendance will start charging for some online content because they don't know what else to do.

 

They will listen to a session titled, "Aggregating User Data: Collecting enhanced online newspaper user data across newspaper properties and mining that data to aggressively sell target content to specific audience segments across the network (e.g. golf enthusiasts)." Hey, perhaps an industry largely inept at creative marketing will corral Tiger Woods, or other cultural icons, as spokesmen. They could do worse.

 

There will be a "discussion about content models" and, then, lunch. The afternoon brings a session on the disastrous decline in classified advertising and, finally, talk of "Next steps" before most folks scoot to O'Hare and home.

 

 I suspect some at this de facto summit were, at best, passable managers while times were flush but never really cut out to think on their feet. There are a few leading executives who come from the considerably easier realms of television and radio, where they made lots of money and then got promoted to oversee the far more complicated organisms of newspapers at their multi-media corporations.

 

Executive recruiters likely do not swarm the industry for talent; certainly not in the same way they've gone after leaders at companies such as General Electric, Wells Fargo Bank or Microsoft over the years. Indeed, the June issue of Fast Company, a very sharp tech and business publication, features a cover story on "The 100 Most Creative People in Business."

 

 Perhaps I missed it but I don't think I saw a single newspaper executive mentioned.

 

Why not? Now, more than ever, is a time for creativity and nerve, not just hunkering down and crossing fingers that safe harbor will appear on the horizon. It's a wonderful and important product, vital to American communities. Unlike a lot of jobs, you can look yourself in the mirror and know you're doing some good. Many newsrooms remain filled with a sense of mission even amid the looming dread.

 

At the behest of new corporate superiors (yes, some from radio), I helped oversee the painful layoffs of about 100 in the Chicago Tribune newsroom last year, before being dispatched by someone the Marlon Brando character in "Apocalypse Now" might characterize as "an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill."

 

Fine. It was now their company. I just wish that what would have ensued might have been a strategy beyond a rather pedestrian one, rife with talk of "relevance" and "utility," with a multitude of lists, consumer reporting and de facto aping of local television; all the while needlessly undermining the loyalty of tried-and-true older readers while chasing after youth. It's less what the late philosopher Hannah Arendt tagged the banality of evil than it is the evil of banality.

 

If one believes that newspapers are critical to democracy, one must wish the best to those attending the Thursday meeting. It's sort of like the auto industry: those guys in Detroit screwed things up something fierce but I do hope those companies succeed. In this case, I hope the newspaper honchos, and minions back home, devise new "models to monetize content" and marry them to sophisticated, high-quality editorial visions.

 

It's hard to believe but, who knows, maybe history will one day recall an important meeting in godawful Rosemont. As my my "Star Wars"-obsessed five-year-old son might say, may the Force be with you.

 

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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