In just the past couple of days, there have been reports that The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, other companies are starting to take a look at the liability of giving away all of their content for free, at the same time that they’re trying to charge for it in print. And in this new world we all live in, that issue is in need of reevaluation.

MG: Are there any models you’re particularly optimistic about when it comes to that?

RS: I don’t have it all figured out. But what we’re trying to do with our effort, newspaperproject.org, is to create as much productive debate and discussion over what the right models need to be to make sure that the marvelous news and information newspapers provide is both widely distributed and also valued by the people who receive it. And one of the things that I think the newspaper industry will need to ask itself is, “Are the online aggregators paying enough for what they receive?” We’ve created a classic free-rider problem. You can build billion-dollar companies around the quality content that other people invest in and pay to create. The value proposition is completely out of balance.

MG: Are you currently planning anything beyond the Web site and the ad campaign?

RS: We have our print ads that ran in Ad Age and The New York Times and The Washington Post—about 400 newspapers ran our first ad—and we have online banner ads that have been running on Web sites. And of course we have the Web site up and running. And we’re going to be producing a series of print and online ads; I think the next round of ads will be more focused on consumers. We started off with a simple, straightforward message: “Newspapers have great reach and a lot of readers.” That’s a nice point of departure, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of the campaign. What we hope to do is to create discussion amongst consumers about how people still depend on newspapers. It’s a 55 billion dollar a year industry with 100 million satisfied clients who every day who read the paper. It’s not going away overnight, despite the wishes of some of the pundits and prognosticators.

MG: What about op-ed pages and commentary sections—do you see those as integral components of newspapers, or could they ostensibly be ceded to blogs?

RS: I’m just speaking personally, but I think that op-ed sections, and the opportunity newspapers have to publish interesting voices from an audience, are really under-leveraged. There’s a hunger among consumers to see wider ranges of viewpoints—and there are certain editorial pages and op-ed sections across the country that do a marvelous job of that. I feel that the elimination of op-eds, and the elimination of editorial pages, is a big mistake. Instead, they need to be a lot more interactive, and a lot more inclusive, with new, emerging voices, as well as older, established ones. They’re still in a great position to thrive in print and online. And, online, there’s a lot of exciting work to be done around social networking—particularly as it pertains to people who want to discuss and debate mutual areas of interest. A well-done editorial page and op-ed section can be a linchpin for newspapers to develop very effective social networking platforms that would be not only be very popular, but also very engaging for important subsets of their audience.

MG: Do you see local papers and national papers developing those platforms in ways that are fundamentally different—or fundamentally similar?

RS: At the end of the day, it’s about how well papers can serve their readers, and how well they can build an audience, both in print and online. And once they build those audiences, whether they’re able to sell advertising and subscriptions around them, with all the new products they’re developing. I know from my travels at work that a lot of the mid-size and smaller-market newspapers are doing much, much better than their brethren in bigger, major metros. So it’s hard to generalize about what the appropriate evolution will be. But at the end of the day, the question is how they can serve their communities with quality news and information, and make it accessible to those communities on all sorts of different platforms. And, in that respect, there are definitely many different formulas for success.

MG: How did the idea for the project come about?

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.