09/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Con Games: Virtual Duality, Personal Media In Aspen

I first quit newspapers in 1979 because they had no future. After attending the Aspen Institute Forum On Communications and Society thirty years later, it felt like I quit just in time.

The smartest people in the media business -- newspapers et al -- were in the room this August in Aspen trying to answer a simple question: how in God's name can journalism be sustained in world where The Internet thang has transformed the historical economic model from apples into apple sauce. Craig Newmark of Craig's List was in the room for "Of the Press: Models for Preserving American Journalism" in Aspen, and he and the others, new and old, were trying to make apple pie of a world where the center cannot hold and flat-out won't.

On the other hand, how many fading businesses would love to be in this situation?

Think of it this way: audiences for newspapers are bigger than ever if you count both print and online. At the end of a century of monopolistic avarice, the base business (print) goes bust but an even better one (online) rises from the ashes. What happened? The rise of online means advertisers are no longer willing to pony up ten times the money in print to reach equivalent eyeballs online, thereby rendering the old model moldy. An even bigger problem is Craig and Craig's List, available in most places for free, the online classified-killer now slurping on the cash cow that once accounted for 45 percent of the newspaper revenue stream.

So the world confronted by the Braniacs in Aspen consists of an increasing audience paired with declining revenue. The answer, in other words, is simply to find new ways to make money -- to monetize in the parlance of our parlous times. Humility was the order of the day at this conference, and answers were few and far between. Riddle me this: how do you fund journalism in the grave new world?

  • Nonprofits like the Knight Foundation can pony up.
  • Organizations can barter tickets for coverage.
  • Readers can pay through subscriptions; or, more problematically, through micropayments.
  • Advertisers can dig into their shrinking purses to pay for space on the good old cost per thousand (CPM) basis.

Despite working groups and fine fare at Plato's Restaurant, new schemes to make money were so scarce you had to come away from the Forum looking for Godot or Gates or the next visionary to make sense of a nonsensical world. Lest you despair, however, remember that Google, fabulously successful, generates 97 percent of its revenue from one thing only--the monetization of search. Despite all the hoopla and insta-millionaires and applications made of Chrome, not even Google has figured out how to make money from what comes next. How could media and technology types, including a Google veep by the by, expect to know better?

This much is obvious: with the Mass Media model in the crapper, the future belongs to Personal Media--content and/or advertising that knows who you are and what you want. What could be more simple in these complicated times?

Maybe if you have to ask how to make money on The Internet, you ain't never going to find out.