Issue of the week: Can Murdoch make the Internet pay?

Last week, Rupert Murdoch announced that he intends to charge for all of the News Corp.'s news websites.

“We intend to charge for all our news websites.” With those words, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch last week launched a bid to end consumers’ free ride on the Internet, said David Carr in The New York Times. The announcement marks a 180-degree reversal for the Australian-born news mogul, who mused aloud about scrapping The Wall Street Journal’s pay model when he bought the paper in 2007. But that was then. Now, it must gall him that News Corp.’s digital properties—which include the websites of the Journal, the London Times, Fox News, and the New York Post—are giving away their content while their parent corporation reported a $203 million loss for the latest fiscal year. But Murdoch, like other newspaper publishers, has a big problem: “Much of the news that News Corp. produces is already a commodity by the time it hits the Web.” And while “the revenue picture for newspapers has changed considerably in the past two years, the consumer is still stuck on zero when it comes to what he or she will pay for the vast majority of content.”

I almost feel sorry for the guy, said Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff in But what do you expect from a media mogul who, as recently as a year ago, had never ventured online without assistance? The fact is, Murdoch has never recognized the magnitude of the Internet’s threat to the dead-tree newspaper business. How else to explain the fact that just a few years ago, he built the world’s biggest printing plant, outside London. “He may have some of the world’s most trafficked news sites, but they are among the slowest and most inept.” And they’re costing him a fortune. It might be the supreme irony of Murdoch’s lifelong drive to own “the world’s biggest news business”: Now that he has reached his goal, “he’s losing his shirt.”

You have to wonder how well Murdoch knows his own papers, said Yobie Benjamin in the San Francisco Chronicle. He says The Wall Street Journal’s growing online subscription base proves that publishers can charge for digital content. But the Journal can charge only “because it is The Wall Street Journal,” with a “unique readership and content.” Just because he bought that paper doesn’t mean he can magically transfer its premium qualities to the tabloid New York Post and his other down-market properties.

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He doesn’t have to, said Jeff Bercovici in Murdoch never said he would charge for all of News Corp.’s content. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal for years has charged readers for some content while offering other stories for free. It’s the same model, as a matter of fact, that other publishers are “cautiously exploring.” Murdoch’s likely strategy is to “take the Journal’s model and extend it to other News Corp. sites.” That’s neither crazy nor naïve. As is often the case with Murdoch, what he said wasn’t really so shocking—“he just said it louder” than anyone else.

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