It may be impolitic to admit this, but I’m weary of the Great News Business Model Hunt.

For those journalists who have just woken up to the changes in their industry, I know that this issue couldn’t be more fascinating and pertinent. But if you worked in the news business on the web from the start, as I did at Salon.com beginning in 1995, this hunt has become an overly familiar routine and, at its worst, a rite of futility.

Over the course of the decade I spent at Salon, we tried it all — pay walls, partial and total; e-commerce and transaction-based income; personal ads and affinity clubs; fees for add-on services and even an ill-fated cruise. Each of these efforts had its merits, but we never found the magic formula that would allow us to profitably support a newsroom for the web. (Salon is still working creatively on the problem; I left the company a couple of years ago, but remain a shareholder and friend.)

Now, it’s true that we never tried the “metered” approach the New York Times announced last week, occasioning a vast spill of ink, virtual and otherwise. Maybe this plan will provide the paper with much-needed new revenue. Maybe it will drive readers away and cut into ad revenue. I’m sure the Times execs have thought through most of the angles, and since they’ve given themselves another year to launch their scheme, they’ve got plenty of time to fine-tune their system and message.

Still, my first reaction was: Good luck. You’ll need it. My skepticism stems partly from some practical lessons I feel I learned from our ancient mistakes at Salon, and partly from a strong belief that the entire Great Business Model Hunt is the wrong approach.

Some Practical Concerns

First, the practical stuff. Since the web is built on links and open access, barring visitors for any reason is a big deal. The perception that you are operating a “pay site” discourages links and visits. (The Times says visitors who arrive via referring links won’t be “running the meter”; that’s smart, but risks creating a strong incentive for readers to stop using the site’s own front page or indexes, and allow others to “edit” — filter — the content.)

In a passionate defense of the Times plan, media columnist David Carr wrote that the approach will let Times managers adjust the dials of their site on the fly, turning the knobs to boost the free traffic when the ad market is hot, or to bolster subscription revenue during a downturn.

That sounds great, and maybe it will work. But it risks confusing readers, and a confused reader online is an ex-reader. Once visitors encounter a barrier — or even if they get it in their heads that maybe there’s a barrier — they tend to go away and not come back. At Salon, our full pay wall was only in place for a handful of months, nearly a decade ago, and yet I still bump into people who tell me they don’t read the site because they don’t want to buy a subscription.

The Wrong Question

The larger reason for my skepticism is more abstract. Journalists who set out on the Great Business Model Hunt are trying to figure out how to support a newsroom. This is entirely understandable. If you have a great newsroom — and as a lifelong reader I certainly feel that the Times does — then of course you’re going to worry about that around the clock once you realize that your old business model is doomed.

But it’s the wrong question. It’s backwards. The newsrooms of today acquired their size and shape and structure thanks to the business model that supported institutions of their size. The world has changed; that model is vanishing. We shouldn’t be asking “What sort of business can support a newsroom online?” The question is, “What’s the best kind of newsroom that the online business can support?”

In a recent post here at Idea Lab, David Cohn fished a thoughtful quote out of one of Clay Shirky’s essays on this topic. Here it is. Read it again:

The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident

It was just an accident. This truth is painful to accept. It means that there is nothing inevitable about the survival of the newsroom. But it’s also a hopeful insight. There will be new accidents!

The good news is that the web is a great environment for accidents. Risk-taking is cheap, and that means we’re going to have accidents galore, and eventually one or more of them will surprise us by supporting the journalism our society needs.

But I don’t think these accidents will happen out on the trail of the Big Business Model Hunt. They’ll happen where we don’t expect it, and we will all slap our foreheads and cry “Of course!”