Fairfax is weighing up a plan to charge online readers of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald for “premium content” such as columnists and major features.

The proposal hasn’t got the final go-ahead but reports that it’s being seriously assessed at senior levels are strong enough to be given credence – despite the CEO of Fairfax Digital, Jack Matthews, saying yesterday that my sources were “a little ahead of themselves” and that there were no immediate plans to charge for online content.

Matthews acknowledged that “like virtually every newspaper company in the world” Fairfax was looking closely at the New York Times attempt to charge for online content, but that “the jury is still out” on that experiment. “At this stage we have no plans to introduce a similar product but would certainly consider it if we conclude it is a reasonable business model,” he said.

In this interview some months ago, Matthews agreed that organisations like Fairfax, which employ many journalists and generate their own content, are in better shape to face the new media world than those that rely on syndicated copy.

But who is going to pay the salaries of the Michelle Grattans of the future as advertising migrates online? How much are people prepared to pay for quality journalism? If the answer is nothing or not much then in the future there may be two kinds of “content”. The first will be bite-size instant news updates and celebrity gossip supported by advertising and aimed at a mass audience.

The second will be specialised content aimed at niche audiences who are prepared to pay a much higher price for it.

The Australian Financial Review is exploring this second business model with the launch in a couple of weeks of its premium online service, a combination of news and tools for investors. (You can see a preview movie here complete with a man who looks alarmingly like editor-in-chief Michael Gill playing a husband struggling to manage his personal superannuation fund).

But can broad-based general interest journalism follow this route when there is so much information and opinion available online for free? There is an associated problem. Since many people use search engines and links from other sites to find news and information, media organisations that lock up their content behind a pay-per-view wall risk losing influence and relevance. As Google historian John Battelle has said: “Sites that wall themselves off are becoming irrelevant, not because the writing or analysis is necessarily flawed, but rather because their business model is. In today’s ecosystem of news the greatest sin is to cut oneself off from the conversation.”

There certainly are no easy answers for Fairfax. And that’s probably why the pay-per-view experiment, if it goes ahead, will start with premium content rather than the often tabloid material that features on the current Fairfax sites. That way if the idea of charging for content bombs, Fairfax will still have eyeballs to deliver to advertisers.