Saving Newspapers: The Pinky Prescription

by Robert Wright

Rupert Murdoch’s plan to build a pay wall around the Times of London and other media properties won’t be getting a thumbs up from former head Vivian Schiller. Charging for content wouldn’t work, she once said, even “if all the news organizations locked pinkies, and said we’re all going to put up a big fat pay wall.”

Actually, I think pinky locking may be the only hope. If several big players--say, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times--put up a collective pay wall, the prospect of losing access to all three might get people to pay up. But if just one of them started charging, most readers would probably settle for the other two. Lots of people consider newspapers indispensable, but few people consider any one paper indispensable.

And the irony is that Murdoch’s papers are more dispensable after he’s tinkered with them than before. He turned the Times of London from a paper as distinctively high brow as the New York Times into something a bit more downmarket. (As I write this, one of the Times of London’s home-page headlines is “UN worker ‘bites’ man, triggering nepotism row.”) And at the moment Murdoch is busy making the Wall Street Journalwhich has long been one of the few news sites so special that people would pay for admissionseem less special. It now has sports coverage, like everyone else, and features more low-gravitas nonfinancial news.

For much of the weekend the top story on the Journal’s site was that a helicopter and a plane had collided over the Hudson River. No kidding! Why would I pay for a home page that crams that story down my throat when every other news site is doing the cramming for free?

There’s a lesson here about the tyranny of click-counting.

Yes, the home-page story about the Hudson crash might get more clicks than some uniquely incisive analysis of the economy. But it also makes the home page more of a commodity and less of a brand. Paradoxical but true: It’s possible to post stories that make people who come to a web site more likely to click, yet may make them less likely to come back to the site, and certainly less likely to pay for it. If Rupert Murdoch wants his new pay-wall strategy to succeedwhich is a long shot in any eventhe should start by rethinking his whole publishing philosophy. And while he’s at it he might do some pinky locking.

(hat tip: Opinionator)