Greater minds than mine — Jeff Jarvis, for one — have taken their run at newspapers and new business models recently.

This latest spasm of analysis began when New York magazine’s “Daily Intel” site reported that the New York Times would begin charging for access to its content. The model, according to that post, would be like the Financial Times, where you get very limited access to articles (1 per month when I tried it) and are then asked to register (10 articles free each month) and then subscribe (two levels of access to content, costing either 17.50 or 25 pounds).

The Times ran the TimesSelect paywall-based system from 2005-2007. TimesSelect was criticized by some of its biggest names, and was judged a failure. But some people, for example, Nicholas Carr, feel it was a reasonable business model to try. He points to an economic analysis by Matthew Gentzcow that suggests that online news is a substitute for newsprint, not a complement. If you buy Gentzcow’s argument, a fee for online access is reasonable.

All of this to say — where is the business model for newspapers?

We’re all hearing and reading seemingly contradictory information. Here in Canada, Canwest’s newspaper assets are in bankruptcy protection. But according to the publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, that paper remains a profitable entry (with no paywall in place).

Newspapers in the US have been doing all kinds of things — shutting down, going online, going from for-profit entities to not-for-profit foundations. And Rupert MJaron Lanierurdoch is calling sites such as Google or Digg “content kleptomaniacs” and threatening to block Google from indexing his publications (something that Google points out he could have done at any time by inserting a couple of lines of code)

People are pointing to the latest Pew Institute study of newsgathering in Baltimore, which suggests that the vast majority of reporting work still is getting done by traditional media. And to Jaron Lanier’s (left) new book “You are not a gadget”, which suggests a system of micropayments are necessary for media to continue to survive, if not thrive.

So it would appear that we have the following alternatives:

  • Papers are still profitable (Ottawa Citizen)
  • Papers are going bankrupt (CanWest chain)
  • Papers need paywalls (Wall Street Journal)
  • Papers need to meter access (Financial Times, New York Times)
  • Papers need to get access to a global micropayment system (Lanier)
  • Metered access won’t work (Jarvis)
  • Micropayments won’t work (Clay Shirky)

Is it any wonder that I’m confused?

I don’t know the magic solution — I’m sure that if I did I could command a handsome price. It seems to me that there’s gotta be some room for paying media for online content. But what is that going to look like? What is one article on a newspaper web site worth? If a paper costs $1.00 and there are 200 articles in it, does that mean each article costs a half-penny? Who gets that money? What if they’re using wire copy ? Do I get to pay one rate if I just read it, and another if I link to it? Or should I get credit for a link? How much?

If I pay for the online side of things, does that mean I should pay at a library for using their online databases or their hard-copy newspaper indices? Or does their coverage give me full access?

I almost feel as if we’re in the media version of the Cretaceous period — a period characterized by intense diversity in approaches to surviving, thriving, and passing on the ol’ DNA. But instead of dinosaurs and wee scampering protomammals, we have these seemingly uncountable new ways of trying to make a business model for sharing information. The hard part for business, as in nature, is that the vast majority of adaptations will fail. Those best adapted to the circumstances will survive.

So many questions, and so few answers. What do you think?

(Lanier photo used with CC permission from Flickr user dfarber)

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