In light of Amazon.com boss Jeff Bezos' recent bargain acquisition of the Washington Post for $250 million, an editor friend of mine lamented the now de rigueur practice of print newspapers requiring paid premium sections of their online editions.
However, in the same breath, he was quick to add: "But what do I know? I don't need to pay the publisher's bills."
This long-time journalist was wise to caveat his assessment.
Internet news proliferation is one of the vexing questions for print publishers nationwide. The problem for those who banked on the free online news model of the 1990s is how to go back and undo what consumers have grown to expect.
For example, The New York Times stock is now worth somewhere in the neighborhood of two issues of its Sunday print edition. Given this, paying for the electronic version is a hard sell for the Times' increasingly younger audience that stopped buying paper copies years ago.
Operating in the red more often than not, the Times finally relented and followed the lead of its cross-town rival, The Wall Street Journal, which was one of the first media outlets to move to a paid subscription model for its Internet version.
The fact that the Journal is a perennial in-the-black operator might have something to do with that. Along with USA Today, it jockeys back and forth between the top two spots in national circulation.
But the main issue that faces publishers everywhere remains the same, and harkens back to the expansion of online enterprises as well as the evolution of the news business.
During the 1990s Internet boom, free information was considered essential, a consumer convenience at the click of a PC mouse.
But this premise turned out to be a death knell for many newspapers. More recently, we have seen the demise of many major publications, either totally or in print: In the past decade, the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer were two prominent examples.
Ultimately, most major media companies reached the conclusion, as the Journal had just prior to the turn of this century, that there would be free content, but if you wanted full access, you had to pay a fee.
This stemmed from the previous failure of many news moguls to see that by providing unlimited free content online, they devalued their print product. So for customers to value the quality of news delivered, media companies today must bank on their willingness to pay a nominal price for its availability.
Those with foresight created bona fide revenue streams offering year-round relief from the same cash-flow problems plaguing the Times - which was saved in recent years by a $250-million loan and 7-percent ownership stake by Mexican magnate Carlos Slim. Others who got on the bandwagon late are compelled to do so in the name of survival.
Essentially, successful Internet pay models have demonstrated there is value to news, and that customers will pay for it. And since online overhead is far less than its print complement, these subscriptions are highly profitable, a welcome reprieve in the face of lower advertising revenues.
That said, the news world continues to evolve, and traditional publishers would do well to stay ahead of it. Two trends are worth watching.
One of these is the continuing development into full service news organizations of Web outlets which were originally founded as blogging venues, such as the Huffington Post, or as news aggregate outfits, such as Yahoo! News.
In the last decade, Huff Post has further linked itself, through a corporate sale, to the deep online pockets and presence of AOL Time Warner, and Yahoo! News had its own online search engine giant backing it as it grew into a fully-fledged media business.
So while the Post's recent sale was independent of Amazon.com, expect Mr. Bezos to find completely different ways to package and present its many products, not just news, to worldwide consumers.
The other quieter but no less important trend is that of non-profit online-only media coverage. Already, here in New England, one example is the staying power of neophyte VTDigger.org, a project of the Vermont Journalism Trust.
To date, it has shown the same hybrid ability as Yahoo! to tap into solid offerings from other outlets, as well as slowly develop its own internal news arm to cover in-state stories, where it wisely focuses. While far more grass-roots, it has grown its fundraising arm and landed numerous major sponsors, an essential element for survival.
This is the continuing saga of online news. No one seems to have a clear answer as to its future, but publishers everywhere are juggling both paid and free models.
And, as my friend astutely noted, none of us have to pay their bills.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @TellyHalkias.