On We Want Media, the new blog being produced by journalism students at New York University, an anonymous commenter reponds to a post about the choice between paid-for print subscriptions and free online news:

News is not what “they” want me to read, but what I want to read. … If I want to know something I will google the subject and read it or read my local paper online at their website for free.

Indeed. But this is a short-sighted view because it’s currently unsustainable: The traditional, pre-Google newspaper business model that has been in practice until now has forced you to help pay for all the stuff other people want to read. Without something to replace that model, none of us will eventually have anything to find with Google at all — well, not journalism anyway.

In order to continue producing the original content you want to pick and chose from lots of free news web sites, those web sites will need figure out how to make enough money to cover the enormous cost of producing journalism — from an audience that will only want bits and pieces of its total reporting output.

The major issue is not free online access, though. Advertising, not cover price, has always been where the bulk of news organisations’ revenue has always come from. Cover price more or less pays for distribution, which is far cheaper online. It’s the ads that pay for the really expensive bit: journalists’ salaries and maintaining bureax.

Because newspaper readership cannot be dissaggreated the way a website’s readership can, print ads are expensive. Print ads generate more revenue per reader than online ads. Consequentially, the lost revenue from newsprint readers is not being replaced by the huge growth in online readers. Free online access is only a problem if it canabalises the print readership. This is the problem that news web sites need to solve.

Nobody will be better off if they fail to do so.