Amid the news industry’s crisis and the attendant fingerpointing over the causes, there is seemingly endless discussion these days of the pros and cons of things like micropayments, pay walls, aggregators, Google and the like. “We’re being ripped off by Google and the aggregators,” say the traditionalists. “We need to find some way to make people pay for our journalism. Otherwise we can’t support newsrooms full of reporters and great investigative projects.”“Google is not the enemy—it’s driving traffic to news,” say the modernists (including me). “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle and get people to pay for news. There’s too much competition from free sources.”But maybe we’re all looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope—or rather, the microscope. Maybe there is something in the news business that people might want to pay for. It’s just not what some of the pay-proponents think it is. Maybe—maybe—the thing you can charge for is the package the news comes in, not the specific news items themselves.Let me explain.The focus of the pro-payment crowd seems to be coalescing on getting people to pay for news by the story. They generally concede (thank God) that so much news is commoditized that it’s all but impossible to slap a pay wall on an entire news site. But maybe it’s possible, they hope and pray, that people will buy news by the bite, paying to read particular stories and even—in some of the wildest fantasies—paying to forward those stories to their friends (good luck with that).But you know what? Nobody’s ever bought news by the story. This isn’t iTunes, as Clay Shirky and others have pointed out, where you buy something you keep and want to enjoy over and over. News is ephemeral, and the sell-by date is generally measured in hours. Nobody’s going to keep a copy of even the best news story, just for posterity (except maybe the reporter’s mother). As Jack Shafer points out, there are so many ways to evade a subscription wall—many of them with rich traditions in journalism—that it will be impossible to maintain the exclusivity needed to make such a scheme work.What people do buy are packages of news, often supported by other, non-news content. Journalists don’t always like to think about this, but the reasons for subscribing to a newspaper often are as much about the comics, the crosswords and the ads as they are about the news itself. That’s what people plunk down their quarters for: the package, not the story. News collected in a convenient, easy-to-use form that adds value.So maybe we need to figure out how to replicate those traditional collections of news by creating compelling online packages that people will want to pay for. When it’s so easy to find free news all over the Web, the advantage may be in bringing it together in an efficient, attractive, easy-to-digest form, suiting the readers’ needs and desires, to create something of value that they might even want to, gasp, pay for.This may look nothing like a traditional newspaper package, of course—comics and crosswords are just as widely and freely available on the Web as news, after all. But it may take the form of highly targeted, finely crafted packages of news in which readers can find value in the whole rather than the sum of the parts (to coin a phrase). As Shafer also points out, there’s a long tradition of this: magazines like Time and Readers Digest were valuable because they provided quick, comprehensive reads on the news of the day, drawn from multiple sources. Hell, that’s what newspapers are at their core: somebody choosing the best stuff a reader might want to see about what’s going on around them.On the Web, of course, this is known as aggregation, something that not enough news sites do on a regular basis. It’s the notion that editors can act as curators and pick good stuff from a wide variety of sources for their readers. It’s the journalist acting not necessarily as an investigator, but as an expert on a subject. There’s value in that, though it’s not often fully appreciated by many journalists. And it may provide a business model that could subsidize the investigative part of news.On reflection, such packaging actually may be the reason why one of the most celebrated online journalism subscription models is a success: The content of the Wall Street Journal’s Web site really isn’t all that unique—there’s good business content all over the Web these days. But it’s a well put-together, well-edited, yes, well-packaged site that provides readers a one-stop source for up-to-the-minute business news. Is that packaging worth as much as $150 a year? Several hundred thousand people seem to think so. (Yes, it’s imperfect, and yes, many WSJ.com subscribers write off their subscriptions, etc., etc. But the more I think about why I pay for WSJ.com, the more I come back to its efficient packaging. The Journal seems to have figured this out, too: It’s making noises about charging a premium for packages of niche content.)Oddly, journalists have an excellent (free) protoype of what I’m talking about right at their fingertips. I’d imagine that just about everybody who regularly reads this blog is a frequent reader of Jim Romenesko’s indispensable daily digest of media news stories on the Poynter site. But Romensko produces essentially zero original content on his page. He just digests the best media stories of the days and provides links to them. (Funny, nobody in the media ever seems to refer to Romenesko as a parasite, a la Google or Drudge.) That’s the service he provides, and it’s got value: Romenesko is a quick read on what’s happening in the industry. Romenesko fans: Would you be willing to pay for Romenesko’s service? Perhaps. It beats scouring the blogs and other sources he aggregates. This isn’t paying for content—it’s still free. But it would be paying for Jim’s expertise. His curatorial abilities. That’s a news service with value: it’s all about the packaging.Romenesko and WSJ.com are just a couple of examples of great news packaging on the Web. Thinking of those as models, there may well be subscription-based business opportunities out there for highly targeted, edited, aggregated products focused on hyperlocal news, sports teams, hobbies, industries, special interests, whatever, drawing from a myriad of otherwise free sources. Can you accomplish the same thing for free with an RSS reader or a canned Google news search? Yeah, maybe, though it might still be unfocused and inefficient. Can you rely on following a bunch of Twitter feeds to point you to interesting content? Only if you have a high tolerance for a lousy signal-to-noise ratio. But a well-thought-out, well-packaged, well-edited site on a specific topic? That has value, day in, day out, far more than any individual story ever could.I’m still skeptical that people will pay for news, in most cases. But I’ve always thought there’s a business in high-value, specialized information. Maybe high-quality, well-chosen collections of focused news fit that definition. Maybe, rather than paying for news, per se, people will be willing to pay for smart packages of it.