Should businesses and individuals be charged to access news content online or forward links to particular stories? Endorsed by the PRCA and CIPR, online news service Meltwater is taking the Newspaper Licensing Authority (NLA) to court over their attempts to regulate online news distribution.

The case has a lot of us in the PR industry wondering about the ethics of it all.

Should people have to pay to access online news content in any of its forms, be it the article or through a link sent from a friend? And who will it benefit?

For some, paying for online news content is a way to ensure quality standards and support newspapers who are struggling to make ends meet through traditional print publishing.

For others, enforced regulation on accessing and linking to content seems to go against the purpose of the internet and new media technologies to make content readily available.

The reading we’ve done suggests that it can actually be more harmful than good to enforce this type of regulation – and not just for those businesses paying for the content, but for the distributors.

Although some publications, largely specialist titles like the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, have successfully managed to put a subscription structure in place many newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have tried and failed to do this.

Slate, the online publication run by The Washington Post, commented on the reason why they chose not to charge their readers. Turns out that their own experience of online subscriptions and studies like those conducted by Matthew Gentzkow helped them conclude that enforcing the consumer to pay for content did more harm than good.

Gentzkow’s study, for example, suggests that the online market for advertising has grown so substantially that the revenue it produces generally outweighs the revenue produced by a subscription-based publication. It also suggests that online news content is not a direct threat to print because they’re used as substitutes rather than competitors (i.e. a reader of The Guardian might read the publication online on days when they cannot get the paper).

So what’s the solution? Jeff Jarvis, author of ‘What would Google Do?’ has the right idea. He argues that owning or distributing content no longer holds any value and that news sources should use their trusted and established positions in society to facilitate interactivity and conversation online instead.

After all, web 2.0 is all about interactivity. We’re in an age where content is King. And, as Jeff Jarvis points out, ‘conversation is the Kingdom’. Newspapers should instead be looking at ways to improve their reach online by facilitating conversation.

It makes sense really. Through the increased growth of web-traffic, publications will be able to charge higher rates for corporate advertisements without alienating those who cannot afford to pay for content. Charging people to access and circulate information however will have a chilling effect. And, with an increasing amount of content available online, people will only turn to pirate sites or citizen journalism to get their fix – and this could open up a whole other bucket of worms in itself.