Like most people thinking about the ailing news business these days, Jacob Weisberg is better at describing the problem than at prescribing solutions.

“I do think people approach it in the wrong way when they think about it as a business problem,” Weisberg, editor-in-chief and chairman of the Slate Group, said earlier today. “It is more fundamentally a problem of democracy. And it is a problem of democracy because our system of government is predicated on a free press and an independent media, which allow us to have an informed public and a check on government.”

Weisberg spoke at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. A former editor of the politics-and-culture webzine Slate, Weisberg is now in charge of developing new products affiliated with Slate, such as The Root, aimed at African-American readers, and The Big Money, a financial Web site.

Weisberg expressed pessimism that anything like the newspaper as we have come to know it can survive in the digital age — especially papers smaller than the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. (Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.) Still, he refused to join the likes of Walter Isaacson, Steven Brill and Gordon Krovitz, all of whom have argued in recent weeks that newspapers should charge for their online content.

Asked by Shorenstein’s director, Alex Jones, how many subscribers he thought the New York Times would lose if it started charging $20 a year for online access, Weisberg replied, “90 percent.” He added he’d rather donate $100 a year to the Times than pay a $20 subscription fee, since a paid-subscription model would necessitate walling off content from the larger Internet, and especially from bloggers.

“The political debate exists online, and if you’re behind a pay wall, you’re not part of it,” Weisberg said, adding that Slate’s own 1997 experiment in charging for content is widely seen as having failed.

Though Weisberg would not rule out a role for non-profit, endowment supported projects such as the investigative Web site ProPublica, he said he prefers profit-driven ventures because they are not dependent on the whims and agendas of philanthropies.

“America’s contribution to the news media isn’t the free press, it’s the independent press,” he said. “Countries are better off with an independent media. That’s what we’re at risk of losing.”

The audio of Weisberg’s presentation is online here.

Photo of Weisberg (cc) by Dan Kennedy. For details, see Creative Commons license elsewhere on this blog.