Everybody has accepted that the newspaper industry is in real trouble. The debate is now what newspapers can do to survive and rebuild for the internet era we live in.

Paid content seems like one of the most immediate possible solutions for stemming declining print and advertising revenues but paid content isn’t easy for a number of reasons.

Alan Mutter, who left the newspaper business in 1988 and became a technology executive in the late 1990s, authors one of the best blogs on the sad decline of the newspaper industry.

In a post yesterday, he revealed that paid content was a hot topic at the annual meeting of the Newspaper Association of America:

…participants have confirmed that significant private talks on the subject are taking place among several of the chief executives convened at the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel.

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 – that would be similar to a confab where many of the same leaders discussed the industry’s challenges in January, 2007. Despite the deterioration of the newspaper business in the intervening time, no similar session has been held since then.

According to Mutter, it’s getting harder to find newspaper execs who aren’t seriously looking at paid content and he concludes:

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.

This is an interesting statement. Right now, one of the biggest challenges newspapers face is that much of the news they produce is commoditized. If one newspaper charges for content, chances are some of that content will be accessible somewhere else for free. This makes is much, much tougher for newspapers to create a compelling value proposition to get consumers to pay.

But what if lots of newspapers, including the most prominent dailies and nationals, came together to form a sort of pseudo ‘content cartel‘? If organized effectively, they might be able to make it much more difficult for the average consumer to access paid content for free on other newspaper sites.

Maybe this is a stretch right now; so many newspapers are struggling for their own survival that it’s hard to imagine they could work together in any major fashion. But I think Mutter makes a valid point: if there’s a ‘critical mass‘ of newspapers charging for content online, that could change the game.

And if newspapers get aggressive about how others use their content, that could make the paid content cartel even more powerful. Last week, Rupert Murdoch had some harsh words for Google and asked whether content producers are going to let Google “steal all our copyrights“.

Whether all of this turns out to be talk and rhetoric remains to be seen but one thing is for sure: it’s unlikely newspapers are going to go down without a fight and that could mean big changes for consumers as paid content becomes a more prominent part of the struggle.

Of course if enough value is provided to consumers, everybody wins. But if a pay wall cartel is erected without regard to value, everyone loses.

Photo credit: Monica’s Dad via Flickr.