I spent the morning at a workshop in Worcester, MA focused on reader comments and the law – and for some reason started thinking about ice cream on the way home.

The session was organized by an informal group of New England media lawyers (shout out to Rob Bertsche and Rick Gagliuso) and the lunch keynote was delivered by Josh Benton of the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. I joined three other journalists on the morning panel: Jim Bodor of the Telegram & Gazette, Jessica Kosowski of the Sun-Chronicle and David Olson of the Salem News.

We had a great crowd and conversation, none of which had to do with dessert. On the ride back I started wondering if any of us were doing enough online (reader comments aside) to make digital news really different than print.

So try this analogy on for size: For 200 years we have been selling basically the same product – call it vanilla news ice cream. Maybe some papers have been selling vanilla bean or French vanilla. It is still vanilla – albeit fresh and tasty and delivered right to your doorstep every morning.

When newspapers went online we started by offering the only flavor we knew how to make – vanilla. Vanilla online is basically as good as vanilla in print – assuming you really like vanilla. And we bet the farm on people really liking it. Sure, one click away were 10,000 other store fronts selling Youtube and Flickr and Face… I mean chocolate and butter pecan and rocky road. But we were sticking with our sure thing.

The question becomes – vanilla is great but what it only 20% of people want to buy it on a regular basis? What if adding multimedia and comments and text alerts is great but is really just hot fudge on top of the vanilla? Yummy, but still intrinsically the same as the print product.

So, what exactly do newspaper.coms need to do to learn how to make pistachio? And butter pecan swirl. And maybe mint chocolate chip. Is the answer mass customization, user generated content, local business recommendations and reviews, free classifieds, hyper-local databases, cell phone video or social networks? Or are all of those things really just news with sprinkles on top?

Is someone out there already building the next great ‘news’ thing and if so, any chance they are building it for a journalism company?

If you know please leave a message – I will be at Baskin-Robbins.