When the reeling newspaper industry

sent its honchos to the Chicago O'Hare Hilton last week

to discuss the future viability of the business, it sounded dramatic, desperate, perhaps even tragicomic.

(The writer who broke the news, former

Chicago Tribune

managing editor James Warren, likened the meeting -- sardonically -- to the infamous mafia conclave in Apalachin, New York, in 1957.)

Not surprisingly, speculation was rife among media watchers (and investors) about the details of the meeting's conversation. There seemed to be only one item on the agenda: how and when publishers might begin charging readers for online news -- and, indeed, how to sell audiences accustomed to free Internet content on the very idea of paywalls.

Now, however, as details of the meeting have emerged in the days since, it would seem that the majority of the minutes were given over to newspaper executives sitting in their seats and getting sold to.

At least three early-stage startup businesses sent their top salesman to Chicago to pitch executives on products intended to take the newspaper industry into the future -- but for a price.

There was Journalism Online, for instance, launched just weeks earlier by a trio of media-business heavyweights: Steve Brill (media entrepreneur and former journalist), Gordon Crovitz (a pre-Murdoch publisher of

The Wall Street Journal

) and Leo Hindrey (managing partner of InterMedia, a private equity firm that specializes in media investments).

Journalism Online is essentially a software platform that would help newspapers charge for online content, either with monthly or annual subscriptions, or with so-called micropayments, in which Internet readers pay by the article. Publishing companies would sign on, paying Brill and his cohorts a fee, or a percentage of their ad revenues.

There was also ViewPass, a similar project, but one that newspapers would own collectively. Founded by Alan Muller, a former editor at the

Chicago Sun-Times

and now a media-business consultant, ViewPass would also help newspapers with so called "behavioral targeting." That is, ViewPass's software would gather data on specific reader demographics and tastes with the intention of selling targeted online ads, which are presumably more expensive than regular online ads. Publishers would, effectively, provide the seed capital for ViewPass and then share in its profits.

And then there was Attributor, a Silcon Valley startup that was trying to sell newspapers what amounts to anti-piracy software. Attributor's product is designed to track the paths by which content is copied and spread around the Internet. Attributor already has a few big media customers, including the British newsgathering giant, Thomson Reuters.

At the meeting were representatives of the

New York Times

(NYT) - Get Report

Gannett

(GCI) - Get Report

,

EW Scripps

(SSP) - Get Report

,

McClatchy

(MNI) - Get Report

,

Lee Enterprises

(LEE) - Get Report

, among several other privately held publishers.

Reports indicate that the pitchmen met with some "traction," as they say, at the Chicago event. Steve Brill, for instance, told the

blog of Harvard's Nieman Institute, a journalism think tank of sorts, that his pitch to publishers has met with some success. He said he'll be announcing agreements with "several" news organizations within a few weeks.

Still, desperate times have a tendency to produce their fair share of con artistry -- one thinks of the surge in the business of fortune telling at the end of the Roman Empire, the barbarians massing.

Which isn't to say that guys like Steve Brill and Alan Muller are con artists. (Or barbarians, for that matter.) They're not. Their ideas may, indeed, be viable -- though it's still far too early to tell. (James Warren, for example

brought up one potential problem to the entire paywall notion, what he called newspapers' "dirty little secret": that newsroom cost cuts have reduced the quality of most newspaper reporting so much that readers may think twice about paying money for it online.)

Everyone understands that the newspaper business needs innovative thinking and entrepreneurial daring more than at any other time in its history since maybe the early days in the career of Joseph Pulitzer (who once shot off a pistol in a gunfight in Missouri).

Still, that old adage remains an old adage for a reason: Buyer beware.

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