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Guest Commentary: The day of reckoning has arrived. Journalists and PR professionals have been holding their breath for 18 months, waiting for the New York Times to introduce its online paywall. Why the anticipation? If you haven’t noticed, traditional media is in free fall. It’s kind of like banking in 2008 but without bailouts. The problem is that circulation is declining, advertisers are fleeing and web surfers are getting infinite information for free. The paywall question is whether consumers will pay for quality.

Who needs newspapers? The filthy relics of olden times are redundant since we get news from friends on Facebook. We scan the iPad in the morning, sit in front of a browser at the office and check status updates on our Androids at night. We don’t have time to read a newspaper, in print or online.

But those who look at this as a print vs. online debate are missing the point.

Television, movies, magazines and radio are facing the same problem. How do we pay the writers, editors, producers and actors when the content is free? The New York Times newsroom payroll is $200 million a year. That kind of bank gets world-class reporters with deep connections at sites like Tahrir Square. Citizen journalism sounds cheery and progressive, but I, for one, don’t trust an amateur to interview my senator or the thugs outside the mosque.

The question is, when will the Internet masses grow tired of the drivel? There have always been free newspapers. Think about “The Little Nickel” or the free community tabloids stacked at your coffee shop. Journalism’s nadir.  How badly do you want to save 50 cents?

A backlash is coming where consumers choose new subscription models for quality content. One challenge is that we haven’t hit consumers’ threshold for schlock. But with the New York Times locked up, what else is there? The Wall Street Journal is already closed. Ditto for the Financial Times. I guess you could read Associated Press and USA Today, but the quality can be fair to middling. How much do you care about news?

Another challenge is lack of compelling value propositions. The iTunes or Kindle models aren’t fully baked. The New York Times on the Kindle is not a satisfying experience, yet. But News Corporation is trying new models, including making content available to customers sitting inside Starbucks stores, so your $3 latte helps pay the newsroom payroll. Or maybe the cost gets rolled into your wireless bill or your cable bill, much like you add unlimited texting or HBO today.

[Related Post: Kindle readers of The New York Times to get free access to the newspaper’s Web site]

There are plenty of angry cheapskates who will take their “free” news. I’m sure many of them only watch free terrestrial TV. I would argue that terrestrial TV is suitable for trolls and housecats; the rest of us switched to paid cable in the 1980s. After 10 years of circulation declines and decimated newsrooms, it’s time to get serious about quality. I welcome the paywall and the end to the free lunch.

For those who refuse to pay, enjoy your Twitter updates from Tahrir Square.

Paul Owen is founder of Owen Media, a high-tech public relations firm with offices in Seattle and Portland.

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