Is Murdoch's Plan to Charge for Online News Doomed?

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Rupert Murdoch announced plans to charge for all online content of his newspaper and TV empire, in what is possibly the boldest move of any media mogul to boost revenue from online news. Since Murdoch's News Corp empire spans the globe, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, Fox News and basically anything ever published in Australia ever, this would send shock waves through a barren online media landscape that is gasping for revenue streams. But will it work?


Gawker says the move has "fail written all over it." Andrew Sullivan (who gets a check from Murdoch's News Corp for a Sunday column) gives it more of a chance. Me, I have the feeling that asking readers to pay for FoxNews.com is like charging $10 for an after-dinner mint. That's not just my liberal commie instincts talking up: I'd say the same about CNN.com or any site subsisting on the lifeblood of AP wire stories. If the bulk of your site is expendable, borrowed, or fungible with Google News, there's no reason to pay a dime for it.

All sorts of details remain unclear, but here are three questions I would want answers to before I deliver a prediction.

1) Is This Happening in Stages?
Presumably, Rupert won't throw a big fat switch that suddenly makes every piece of News Corp online paid content -- from Aussie surf channels to Indian entertainment sites to Glenn Beck. He'll do this in stages. WSJ.com is already a free/paid hybrid site. Perhaps he'll try to expand the paid section and gauge reader response and revenue. Or maybe he'll start tinkering with paid models on Australian sites before unveiling a comprehensive plan in the States. It will be interesting to see how inches toward an empire of all paid content.

2) Will There Be Bundling?
In June, News Corp's chief digital officer Jonathan Miller suggested he might like to charge for Hulu. And lo, a great national wailing was heard. But wait, Miller said, it wouldn't be so bad if we bundled, or asked consumers to pay a low price for access to a number of shows:

"I think what works for consumers most likely -- and this has to be tested, frankly -- is bundles. I think you have to figure out what are the right bundles that people buy and what's contained in that bundle."

On Hulu, I guess that would mean you could "buy" NBC access, or maybe sitcom access. Across News Corp, bundling could work too. Murdoch could create national bundles (ie pay a monthly fee to access all his American-based media) or topical bundles (ie a monthly fee for MarketWatch, Barrons, SmartMoney and the WSJ Business and Markets tab). Or it could be like buying discounted shirts at Target. If I buy two website access passes (say, WSJ and Sunday Times) can I get a third of equal or lesser value (Fox News) for free?

3) Will He Close the Google Loopholes?
Pssst, I've got a secret! Technically, much of WSJ.com is already paid content. But there's an easy way around the pay wall. Some articles show the first few paragraphs interrupted by a banner asking you to subscribe to read the rest. But! If you copy the headline and paste it into your Google search, the first item under "News Results" will be the full article...free! That means WSJ's subscriber-only content is, well, not subscriber-only at all. Presumably, Murdoch allows this to optimize traffic from web searches, but it's a pretty obvious loophole and one that he'll have to close if he expects enterprising news readers to actually pony up cash for content.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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