Free news online will cost journalism dearly

I don't pretend to understand all the minutiae of the writers strike, but I do know this much: Hollywood scribes want to be compensated fairly when their work is accessed on the Internet, which is increasingly becoming a venue to watch movies and TV shows.

So why should newspapers be any different?

Newspapers, including this one, give away the store online, all the while wringing their hands about declining revenue and circulation. Everyone says the Net represents the future of journalism, and that's probably true. But at this point, no one knows how to make much money at it.

I'm scratching my head trying to come up with another financially challenged industry that found salvation by charging people nothing for its output.

I figured the best way to understand the trend was to turn to the people with the most at stake: young journalists accustomed to getting their news for free online but also looking ahead to paying jobs at newspapers.

That's how I found myself before the Christmas break in a windowless, computer-packed room with the teenage staff of Crossfire, the student newspaper of Crossroads School, a well-regarded, K-12 private institution in Santa Monica that happens to be my alma mater.

I began by asking the two dozen students present how many had their own MySpace or Facebook pages. Nearly all raised their hands.

I asked how many pay for content online. Not one hand went up.

"Does that include music on iTunes?" one student asked.

I nodded. All the hands went up again.

"What about news?" I asked.

Hands down.

Now that was interesting. These bright, info-hungry, computer-savvy kids willingly paid for the latest cuts from Alicia Keys or Fergie. But they couldn't imagine having the same relationship with the New York Times, say, or the much-respected, widely esteemed news outlet you're currently enjoying. "A lot of this has to do with a big generation gap," explained Phoebe, 15. (At Crossroads' request, I won't be using students' last names.)

"My grandparents subscribe to a lot of newspapers," she said. "If I want to read a newspaper, I go online, but I wouldn't pay for it. Our generation doesn't pay for things on the Internet."

What Phoebe meant, of course, is that her generation doesn't pay for information on the Net. Music, movies, games -- all those things have clear monetary value. Anything you take in by reading, not so much.

"Information should be free," declared Corey, 18, echoing a sentiment I encounter a lot online, particularly among bloggers, who feel a perverse sense of entitlement to other people's work.

Corey and others on the Crossfire staff pointed out that ads typically run alongside journalists' stories online. "You're getting paid from the ad revenue," Ginny, 18, told me.

Well, no. The dirty little secret about newspaper websites is that despite the double-digit annual growth in traffic, papers' online operations usually account for about 5% of overall revenue.

The L.A. Times, to cite just one example near and dear to my interest in eating regularly, has an editorial staff of roughly 890 (not including the cyber-guys). It might be nice reading the output of the state's largest newsroom for free online, but 95% of the overhead is covered by the paid-for print version.

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