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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Is Rupert Murdoch the only person talking sense about the internet?

Rupert Murdoch says he's looking into how he may be able to charge for access to News International's web sites. His experience charging for content on the Wall Street Journal site makes him believe this is possible. The experience of the last year, where advertising revenue on his titles dropped by 21%, probably makes him believe this is inevitable.

I'm sure Murdoch's corporate heirs don't share his confidence but they're too implicated in the policy of investing billions in the internet to be caught blinking first. When they first began building massive newspaper sites and putting all their daily content on to them it was against the background of an expanding advertising market. There were people who thought that print was doomed but Doomsday was distant enough to probably occur on somebody else's watch. Things have changed in the last 12 months. Local papers in major American cities are closing almost weekly. Nothing quite so dramatic is happening here but there isn't anyone in a senior capacity on a British newspaper who believes that they can continue investing in both print and digital. Nor is there any serious person who believes that abandoning the former for the latter would be anything other than suicide. Nor can there be even the most junior contributor who can have failed to notice that budgets on newspapers are being drastically hacked back.

I'm sure Murdoch is old and wise enough to know that if some kind of payment is introduced it will be difficult and painful. He didn't get where he is today without being a realist. He's a sight more realistic than all the people on The Guardian site who have been heaping derision on his plans. Displaying the remarkable unanimity of the truly clueless they stop just short of calling him old and out of touch. Information wants to be free, some of them claim, parroting one of the most popular clichés of this most cliché-rich environments. Well, information doesn't feel one way or another about freedom. It's simply that the self-destructive land grab the newspaper groups have indulged in in the last ten years has encouraged people to believe that they didn't have to pay for information. So they didn't. Once the traditional information providers decide that they can't make any money giving all this away for free they will either go out of business or stop altogether. Anyone who thinks that information vacuum is going to be filled by citizen journalists or the BBC or some unspecified "new model" has their head in the sand.


  1. No one has yet worked out a way of making the internet pay for them. This is the inevitable answer.

    Good for him. When everyone else sees it working - and no doubt it will - they'll all be doing it and breathing a sigh of relief. It just takes one person to dare to get the ball rolling...

    The overgrown students and Murdoch hate brigade over at the Guardian are already hysterical. But then I'd expect nothing less.

  2. "Information wants to be free" comes from Stewart Brand's 1989 book "The Media Lab", and later in the same passage he counters "Information wants to be expensive".

    This is because it's expensive to produce high quality information, yet increasingly the distribution is too cheap to meter.

    I don't know the solution, but I do think if you tried to charge for a Times or Guardian online, competition would drive the price to zero pretty damned quickly.

    (Capcha: "inontsco" - an Inuit casn'n'carry chain)

  3. But if somebody *succeeded* in charging for a Times or Guardian online, would the Telegraph do the same thing? I think they would. The advertising premium involved in being the biggest (which is readily available to any paper that gives its precious content away) gets less valuable all the time. The amount a media owner can charge for access to users is dropping like a stone. At some stage users have to start paying or watch the thing they value just drain away.

  4. Well, you have to try something if people are buying fewer papers, and advertising is falling off a cliff. The problem is that if people can find ways of consuming an entire Hollywood blockbuster for free, you'd have to say "information", even hard news, might have a challenge on its hands. Truth is nobody -- not Rupert, certainly not me and maybe not even those commentators on the Guardian site -- has a clue how this is going to pan out. It's unlikely to be very pleasant for traditional media owners, though. There are just too many insurgents destabilising things, the buggers.

  5. An important point that no-one's mentioning is the current low standard of journalism across all papers. Blogs (like this one) are increasingly becoming a viable alternative source of information being as they are largely free of the commercial and political obligations of the press. Google have a blogsearch currently in beta which works just like Google news. If you want to charge, you have to make it worth reading. The Wall Street Journal is good journalism, but how many other papers can truly say they are?

  6. I wouldn't want anyone to confuse what I do here - or what 99.9% of bloggers do elsewhere - with journalism. It's comment and in most cases it begins with something I've read in the papers. I don't think the standard of journalism is any lower than it's been at any stage in my lifetime. It may appear to be more drawn towards the trivial and sensational but in that all it's doing is pandering to public taste. Just look at the "most read" lists on all the papers' sites if you don't believe me.

  7. Completely right, Dave. There is information, and there is information. Dave's blog is high-quality stuff, we all know that. But I'm not sure he has the resources to find out exactly what Obama's guys are doing in Afghanistan. This issue isn't about finding a great hotel in Edinburgh, or what's on at the pictures tonight -- that's free and always will be. This is about genuine news gathering, a staggeringly expensive thing to do.

  8. Media companies and journalists are currently going through the trauma period of contraction and closures. The great reading public is next. When your local/national paper closes and you go online and find there is no alternative ... then what? Maybe newspapers will just have to die and consumers go through a period of withdrawal therapy before someone reinvents them as an online business.

  9. Curiously I might pay for the guardian on-line if it didn't have any comment from the wider internet community. We use to use newspapers for cleaning unfortunate accidents left by the cat now the bile and ordure is dripping from the content already.

  10. Death throes: Unlikely to be welcomed by people involved in them. Others couldn't care less.

  11. The crucial skill that Rupert Murdoch has is knowing how to price things. The Times: cut the cover price, take a hit, play the long game and establish market leadership. Sky Sports: charge the maximum you can get away with and never let it be anything other than a “premium” product.
    I’d trust his judgement on these things more than that of Guardian readers.