“Secret” meeting of press execs

A bunch of top newspaper executives met at a hotel in Chicago on Thursday to discuss how to make more money from the web. Will their plan work? Is it a good thing if it does – whatever “it” is?

News of the gathering was broken by James Warren of The Atlantic. “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.”” They met near Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

What was the subject? “Models to Monetize Content”, a very timely one. “Perhaps the age of content theft is coming to an end,” says Warren, referring to two session: “Fair Syndication Consortium/Attributor,” and  “Journalism Online: Presentation on proposed service to charge for access to newspaper content and to license that content that (sic) online aggregators.”

Alan Mutter, who writes (very well) about newspaper economics, had a previous write-up on the group and its ambitions when they met in San Diego. “After comparing notes in San Diego, the executives may come to recognize that the number of publishers willing to charge for at least a portion of their online content is approaching sufficient critical mass that they may be able to pull it off.”

The attendees have been very, very much at pains to say that goodness, this wasn’t a secret, nothing to see here – so much that it is utterly unconvincing. This piece in Editor and Publisher is so full of denials it positively squeals.

“The characterization in The Atlantic that this was a ‘secret meeting’ was inaccurate,” said Michael Golden, vice chairman of The New York Times Co. “If it were secret, there wouldn’t have been a sign on the door saying ‘NAA meeting.’ This was a meeting that had been planned for weeks — you can’t get these people together without planning it over a period of time.”

“This was no attempt at a clandestine meeting,” said NAA President John Sturm, who called the summit a productive “information exchange.” “It wasn’t like it was in a cave or anything,” said Steven Brill, one of the co-founders of Journalism Online and who was among the participants.”

The secret thing is a bit corny; but it sells news, as these guys should know.

Why so shy? Remember what Adam Smith said: ““People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Mutter confirmed that the San Diego meeting was very aware of the risks. “The under-the-radar discussions include a sit-down among several CEOs – held quite separately from the convention under the guidance of a lawyer to ensure the talks don’t stray into inappropriate territory.” Sturm told Editor and Publisher, “Price was never discussed, and interestingly enough, there was no reason to discuss price. [That’s] always a local decision.

The issue here is in part whether the industry can come together around a plan to do something to arrest its decline – by generating more, or new revenue, or by winning it  from someone else. It is in part whether such a plan would work even if agreed. Can they wall off a chunk of content? Or create a place (as Hulu does for video) where customers will go and access content and where they can generate revenue? Whether they agree or not, would this work?

I am reminded of a quote from Shakespeare:

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?

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