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To survive, newspapers must kill the aggregators

James Warren at The Atlantic blogged today about a semi-secret meeting of major newspaper company executives in Chicago to discuss the Internet conundrum.

If Internet news aggregators, free content, low margins on Internet ads and a splintered Internet advertising market, more than the cruddy economy, are what’s killing newspapers, then this meeting is long overdue.

One of their top discussion topics is free content but I don’t see how you can unring that bell. Newspapers in the 1990s saw the Internet as added value to their flagship newsprint products. They started out giving away on the Internet what they were charging people to read in print.

Now the Internet is the future and they’re stuck with the free content model.

Or are they? According to Warren, the focus of the meeting is to find a way to charge for content. The reason for the meeting of the top poobahs is that all of them have to charge readers for it to work. If the New York Times charges to read but the Washington Post doesn’t, the Times will lose readers to the Post.

But if they all agree to do it, I’m sure the Justice Department will be interested to know how that bit of corporate serendipity came about, what with that pesky Sherman Anti-Trust Act and all.

The problem is not free content, it’s stolen readers. Aggregators are what’s killing newspaper advertising. Google, Yahoo and friends steal the Times,’ the Post’s, USA Today’s, the Arizona Daily Star’s and every other newspaper’s stories and delivers them to Google readers, who are then exposed to Google’s ads.

But Google bears none of the cost of gathering and reporting that news.

The key is technology – newspapers must invest in IT eggheads to write the code that will wall off the aggregators. Then, if you want to read a New York Times article, you have to go the Times’ site.

And there’s no antitrust problems to worry about, it’s just good business.

To read Warren’s blog, click here.

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