Free news online will cost journalism dearly

Rely solely on the Net for circulation and revenue, as some pundits have argued, and the unavoidable fact is that you can't support a news-gathering operation this large or resourceful.

You'd have to make do with significantly fewer people, fewer (if any) overseas bureaus, fewer investigations, less original content, less of the watchdog sort of thing that readers consistently say they rely on newspapers to provide.

What's the answer? Hell, if I knew that, I'd be making a fortune selling it to newspapers worldwide.

But until a long-term business model for the digital age presents itself, I believe newspapers at the very least must acknowledge that their content has value, and as such should stop giving it away online.

I know, I know. This is prickly stuff. The New York Times tried charging for its columnists online and then stopped. Rupert Murdoch, the new landlord at the Wall Street Journal, has said he thinks the paper's website should be subscription-free.

The L.A. Times also has an "under new management" sign out front now that real estate tycoon Sam Zell has taken over. No telling what he has in mind.

Here's the thing: As long as the big papers give it away free, the little papers will have no choice but to do the same. Before you know it, no more little papers.

Meanwhile, blogs will continue sprouting like crab grass throughout the electronic ether. Soon, the line separating quality journalism from utter hokum will be too blurry to discern.

I asked the Crossfire kids if that worried them.

They said they had no trouble telling good info from bad, but that didn't mean they'd ever pay for the good stuff.

Jordan, 15, said he bought music at iTunes but didn't think twice about downloading copyrighted materials for free from more shadowy sources.

"So many people do it already," he said. "Who am I taking money from, people at these big corporations?"

Yes, but also the artists whose work he enjoys. In the case of newspapers, the wound is entirely self-inflicted. You want our stuff? Here, help yourself.

Jacob, 16, said he wasn't worried.

"I'm sure there's a bunch of smart people at Tribune or NBC or Universal," he said. "I'm sure they can come up with a business model that works."

Let's hope that happens by the time Jacob and his friends are ready to enter the workforce.

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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