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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.