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Is print dead or not?

July 25, 2013

By Kurt Wagner

FORTUNE — In the mid-1990s, former Time Magazine editor Walter Isaacson committed what he now calls “the original sin.” As the World Wide Web started to take off, Isaacson contemplated charging a small fee for readers to enjoy his publication’s content online. “Instead, young advertising executives from Madison Avenue came rushing across Fifth Avenue to the Time and Life Building with bags of money to dump on our desks to put banner ads on whatever we were putting online,” says Isaacson, now the CEO of the Aspen Institute. “We said, ‘Whoa, this is easy. We will never charge for content because we want eyeballs.'”

“And that was the beginning of the end of journalism.”

Understanding the path the journalism industry has taken since is not exactly simple. But some are trying. John Huey, recently retired editor-in-chief of Time Inc. (TWX), Martin Nisenholtz, a special advisor to the New York Times, and Paul Sagan, former editor of new media at Time Inc. recently completed an elaborate project — a collection of 60-70 video interviews documenting how the journalism industry changed following the introduction of digital media. The project, called “Riptide,” is set to debut in September. A preview can be found in Fortune.

The trio joined Isaacson onstage during the last day of Fortune‘s Brainstorm Tech conferenceWednesday to discuss journalism’s history and future. Here are some of the panel’s most intriguing sound bites.

On the decision to offer content online for free in the mid ’90s:

Sagan: “You would have made yourself irrelevant by creating what today you would call a paywall. It would have been impossible … Page views were the currency of the time.”

Nisenholtz: “For the journalism, it was sustaining. The journalism is spread far and wide now [more than ever before]. For the advertising, it was disruptive. And so the oxygen got taken out of the financial model at the same time that the journalism was bigger then ever.”

On whether a pay-per-story business model would work:

Huey: “I don’t think so because there’s too much free content out there and has been since the [’90s]. There are too many places to get content for free. I pay for the New York Times, I know you (Isaacson) pay for the New York Times, but I’m not sure my kids would.”

Sagan: “A small percentage of a big number will pay for these things, and there’s [an opportunity] to get ad revenue and subscription revenue for quality content. But I’m not sure asking people to pay a nickel every time is going to add up enough.”

On the areas of journalism they are optimistic about:

Sagan: “More voices able to reach more people more quickly. That’s tremendously powerful.”

Huey: “I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, which is a product of creative destruction … I think when there is a real void in information, it will be filled by journalists and entrepreneurs who will figure out a way around this. I haven’t a clue what it is. But I’m confident that journalism will remain.”

Will print publications be extinct in 10 years? If not, how many years do we have?

Huey: “I think we’ll still have them. I don’t know what the business models will be, they may not be mass, they could be very expensive … if you ask the question — how many news print products, straight news — the answer might not be so long.”

Nisenholtz: “I agree. I think print is very sustainable for the next decade.”

Isaacson: “Look, print is a wonderful technology. Print is a very good medium that has long battery life. If we had been getting all of our information on screens for the past 450 years or so, electronically, and some modern-day Gutenberg came along and said, ‘Hey, I can take all that information you get on your screens, and I can put it on paper for you, deliver it to your doorstep, you can take it to the bus, the backyard, the bathtub, whatever,’ we’d say, ‘Wow! Print, that’s a really good technology. It might start replacing the Internet.'” CNN/Fortune/Money.

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