Last Thursday a group of top newspaper executives convened by the Newspaper Association of America slipped into Chicago to consider “Models to Lawfully Monetize Content.” That lawfully tells us they’re well aware of the antitrust implications of acting in concert; in fact, according to the Associated Press report of the meeting, an antitrust lawyer was on hand “to caution the participants about laws prohibiting collusion or other anticompetitive measures.”

Also on hand was Steve Brill, founder of CourtTV, American Lawyer, and Brill’s Content, to pitch a monetizing operation he launched a couple of months ago, Journalism Online, in order to offer news operations a “common platform” where news can be bought and paid for. Here’s a report on that, with plenty of links, followed by public comment that skews in the direction of “what’s Brill smoking?” Brill says he already has a couple of antitrust lawyers lined up — David Boies, who led the federal antitrust suit against Microsoft, and Ted Olson, former solicitor general under George W. Bush.

The American Press Institute prepared a 31-page “Newspaper Economic Action Plan” for the Chicago meeting that calls on papers to shift “from an advertising-centered to an audience-centered enterprise,” and the sooner the better. Here’s a breakdown of the report from the Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds, and here, in PDF form, is the whole thing.

“The traditional bedrock of American journalism stands at a precipice,” it begins. “Whole swaths of the American populace have abandoned newspapers or are growing up without the habit of reading them, yet the Web sites of news organizations attract more readers than ever. The problem is that the online business model does not yet come close to compensating for the steep slide in the print business model that it is replacing.”

First order of business: “Establish a true value for news content online by charging for it. We recommend that news organizations begin a period of massive experimentation with several of the most promising options.”

Then there’s the awkward matter of newspapers’ best “frenemy” (a word used in the API report), Google.

“Google does, in fact, provide 25 to 35 percent of the traffic to news Web sites,” the API allows. “It also indexes news Web sites and produces Google News using more than 4,000 news sources. And it pays millions of dollars, through licensing agreements, to AP and other news agencies to host and display the entire text of articles on its site. These agreements, per se, are not in question, but there is evidence that Google derives a disproportionate share of the value from the content that it has aggregated, searched and presented.

“In his blog, media analyst Ken Doctor reported Google’s 2008 revenue to be $21.7 billion — 97 percent of it coming from advertising — and growing at a rate of 31 percent. That’s almost half of the revenue produced by the entire newspaper industry (roughly $45 billion in 2008)….A re-interpreted Fair Share wouldn’t radically change Google’s power or success, but it could reinstate value along the supply chain, from the creation of content through its harvesting and presentation.”

And in conclusion… “What It Takes: Industry-wide collaboration. News companies don’t have the capacity to fly solo.”

Cue the lawyers.