With even the most storied American newspapers slipping into shock, journalists and publishers are finally engaged in a genuine debate about the wisdom of giving away for free the one service they provide better than anyone else–gathering, analyzing and disseminating news.

This month, Wall Street Journal owner Rupert Murdoch and New York Times executive editor Bill Keller have said they are considering ways to charge for what their news organizations produce, inviting scorn from Internet thinkers like Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen, who have elevated the ethos of free information to unreasonable heights.

But it’s not the Internet that has drained the lifeblood from newspapers: newspapers have opened their own veins, allowing news–the only thing they have of real value–to flow unimpeded into cyberspace.

The online information ecosystem that has grown up around their freely proffered content will barely notice if one–or even a half-dozen–major publications put their news behind subscription walls. The only way newspapers can save something of the franchise that took hundreds of years to create is to work together to stop giving away their content without charge.

Call it NOPEC–the Newspaper Owners Print and Electronic Cartel. Only when newspapers cast aside the ethos of free content can the revenues needed to support serious journalism at home and abroad return.

Newspapers still drive the news cycle and do the vast majority of the disciplined, shoe-leather reporting that separates journalism from mere opinion. Newspaper journalism is shamelessly mined by the major networks for news, by wire services for tips, by bloggers for something to kvetch about and by Google News and countless other aggregators.

Just as subprime mortgage vendors had no one checking the credit of those dodgy borrowers, Google employs no news gatherers. Free news delivered by a search engine is part of the same freeloading zeitgeist that has shattered the larger economy.

As revenues dip below the point that can sustain serious news gathering, many newspapers are abandoning what was once their defining mission: international reporting, investigative journalism and analysis.

Into the maw of this crisis have stepped innovators, some well-intentioned, others self-serving. Some of the most likely sources of serious foreign policy journalism outside the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are nonprofit outfits. National Public Radio and the web-based Pro Publica are among the last bastions of objective international news reporting and analysis. And those newspapers still standing increasingly rely on dispatches from the Associated Press and Reuters, the public utilities of the journalism world.

Some new commercial outfits are rising to fill these abandoned niches. GlobalPost, an ad-supported site based in Boston and staffed by “superstringers” around the world–many of them the axed employees of Newsday, the Boston Globe or the Los Angeles Times–has made some headway. (Full disclosure: I write a weekly column for GlobalPost.)

Then there are blogs. From the pure, opinionated one-man bands like Daily Kos and the Drudge Report, to to well-financed Internet catch basins like Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, these outlets not only fail to fill the breach of serious journalism; they actively undermine it. Much on HuffPo or the Beast is written for free by contributors–some professional journalists, some not–eager for exposure. By joining the fray on these sites, journalists and their cousins in the punditocracy undermine the very newspapers and magazines that value their work enough to actually pay for it.

This is journalistic suicide. If rental cars were parked on every corner, gassed up, keys in the ignition and free for public use, would you pay Hertz to drive one?

Yet some newspapers continue to buy into the myth of the early Internet, which posited that a digital era of free content would lead to rising online advertising revenues that eventually would replace the old revenue streams from subscription and classifieds. To no one’s surprise, this didn’t work out; trends were clear even before the economy collapsed.

You will not often see Murdoch second-guessing himself publicly, yet that’s precisely what he did earlier this month, when he said, “people reading news for free on the web, that’s got to change.” In November 2007, just as he was completing the purchase of the Journal, he told another of his newspapers, the Australian, that he intended to scrap the Journal‘s subscription model. He never fully implemented the plan, though far more of the Journal‘s content is online free–for now, at least.

Uptown at the offices of Murdoch’s nemesis on Manhattan’s Eight Avenue, the same conclusion has been reached. At the New York Times, which had tried a plan called “Times Select” to charge for its columnists and op-eds, executive editor Keller has recently said he, too, is trying to find a way to charge for web content.

Newspapers need to understand that the wave of the future is the same one that has been hitting the shore for centuries. You do something well, and you charge people as much as the market will bear for it.

But it has to be an industrywide move. Newspapers must go after the many scavengers that are picking at the carcass of their core product. And they need to tell the Associated Press, a cooperative they own, to stop giving its news content away to every website with a digital pulse.

The Associated Press has taken a significant first step: its board of directors recently voted to sue aggregators that post content without permission. And the newly launched Journalism Online seeks to enable newspapers to charge online readers for content. Among its three founding partners is Gordon Krovitz, former editor of the Wall Street Journal and a longtime advocate of the subscription model.

Can measures like these “save” newspapers? At this point, we are only talking about triage. Waves of buyouts have eliminated hundreds of years of talent from newspaper ranks. Regional powerhouses that once maintained foreign bureaus around the globe–the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe–now struggle to survive. But it’s a first step.

In the end, what’s good for the newspapers, from the Washington Post to your local fish wrap, is good for America. Local governments need to be watched. So do investment banks, automakers and presidents. We already know bloggers will watch the media. But which combination of Twittering teens, well-endowed heiresses, Facebookers and barefoot bloggers do you propose will watch the real power brokers?

Wake up! Web 2.0 is a marketing tool, not a business plan. Newspapers are the only answer our society has ever produced to that question, and they remain the answer today.