The fall of the Times Select pay-wall has sparked another round of worries about how we'll survive if nobody wants to pay for the news they read. Of all the things you might stay awake at night worrying about, this one should be way, way down the list.
It's all about advertising. As I've noted many times, newspapers don't really charge for content anyhow. Since it (often) costs more to print and distribute the paper than we charge for subscriptions, we're already giving it away in order to build an audience we can charge advertisers for.
Yes, it's helpful to have paid circulation since that demonstrates what the advertisers call "wantedness," differentiating newspapers from free shoppers. The environment in which you see an ad matters. But subscription prices aren't really about charging for content.
Now Scott Karp at Publish2 offers another illuminating way of thinking about this. In this post, he argues that people actually do pay for content online; the wrinkle is that they're paying their internet service provider – Comcast, or SBC for instance – rather than the producer.
In a way, this is analogous to paying for the newspaper: in either case, what you're really paying for is the delivery.
In England, there's a fee attached to television sets that helps pay for the BBC. (I believe it's about $260 per year). I think the same is true of blank VHS tapes, and perhaps other media, where a small part of the purchase price is returned to various copyright holders.
Since it's easy enough to meter what gets used online, why couldn't there be a fee attached to ISP charges that rebates to content providers?