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Small investors and the media could face higher costs for their daily diet of stock prices under a proposal by the nation's stock exchanges that could lead to new fees for market data.

A group of news organizations, discount stock brokerages and database services is challenging the request for a contractual change that could open the door to charges on 15-minute-old stock quotes.Delayed last sale information, as it is called, is now free to vendors, except for transmission costs.

The debate on Wall Street and in Washington centers on the ownership of data vital to the functioning of the nation's financial markets. It also raises a First Amendment question: Are stock prices news or just another commodity for sale?

Under the present system, charges are applied only to "real-time" quotes, which are up-to-the-second prices. Individual investors pay about $13 a month for real-time quotations from the New York Stock Exchange. Institutions can pay up to $120 a month.

The stock exchanges say they own the data, real or delayed, and need to recover the costs of compiling and distributing it.

Opponents of the proposal by the NYSE and seven other exchanges, pending before the Securities and Exchange Commission, said Friday that delayed-price fees would drive investors who can't afford to pay for real-time data from the markets. They said the 15-minute-old numbers are public property.

"The exchanges are in the business of making the financial markets accessible to everybody," said John Foley, director of on-line stock trading for discount broker Quick & Reilly. "Information dissemination is part of that."

As opponents read it, the proposed contractual change would eliminate the distinction between real-time and delayed data, allowing the stock exchanges to charge for all numbers.