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In a Business Week column, media reporter Jon Fine notes that the Associated Press and some unnamed publishers — we assume of newspapers — have been having informal talks about how to make their online content less available so people will pay for it. Fine offers a possible version of how this could happen:

Out of all the imperfect scenarios available, the least imperfect version looks to me like this: A bunch of news organizations get together, create a site walled off from the prying Web-crawlers of Google (and the momentary affections of the casual Web surfer), charge subscription fees and split these fees and any ad revenue.

It could work, I suppose, I mean the Wall Street Journal gets online subscribers to pay, but then, that’s the Journal, not the Newark Star-Ledger or even the Miami Herald (which, by the way gets noticeably lighter every day when I fetch it from the driveway), for that matter.

“Can I imagine content going behind a pay wall?” asks Tom Curley, the CEO of the Associated Press. “Absolutely. And, yes, we are in conversations about that.” These conversations with other content players are informal, he admits. And a gazillion issues arise. One is that the Associated Press has a licensing agreement with Google, the particulars of which Curley would not detail, that won’t expire until December. (A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.) It’s also unclear how this would work for a newspaper or a TV operation that does not want to wholly destroy existing traffic.

As they say where I come from, it’s a puzzlement. The quandry is that online consumers of news and information are used to getting whatever they want — no matter how bad the quality — for free, all the time, and as much as they want. And how do you protect your content from being snagged by a blogger and posted on another Web site under the fair-use doctrine?

Perhaps, as the price of exclusive content goes up, the value of PR information will increase …

Fine notes that some smaller papers in smaller markets have been relatively successful in getting online subscribers to pay something — but that something is nowhere near as hefty as the former ad revenue stream.

But while the big-shot publishers discuss how much to charge for their locked-down content, I’m left wondering how this will affect the public relations practice. We’re already seeing a contraction of media outlets — there’s just one full-time travel editor left at a newspaper in the state of Florida — so if the AP goes behind a wall, will it even deign to take my press release? Or will I have to enter into an exclusive agreement that my release won’t be made available on, say, PR Newswire so that AP and its partners can assign a value to it?

Or does the scenario present a possible opportunity for the savvy PR practitioner? Already, we are seeing media relations lose the “media” part as the information we disseminate bypasses traditional media and lodges in the Yahoos of the world and all of the other sites that are programmed to respond to keyword searches and automatically snag and post information of interest to their readers.

Perhaps, just perhaps, as the price of exclusive content goes up, the value of the information I and my colleagues disseminate will increase in the eyes of consumers.

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