Is Rupert Murdoch losing it?
by Michael Tomasky
I guess there was more important news this morning - Pakistan, the American banks - but it was Rupert Murdoch who caught my attention. I was stunned to read Andy Clark’s dispatch in the Guardian this morning about Murdoch planning on charging for access to his properties on the internet.
Look, Rupe usually knows what he’s doing. But this really flies in the face of common sense. He argues that the Wall Street Journal’s experience proves that one can successfully charge readers for internet access to one’s newspapers.
But does it? The Journal and the Financial Times, are kind of sui generis. They’re financial newspapers, read by a global financial elite. You can charge global financial elites to read a tailored product of financial news.
But can you do the same with regular readers, to get them to read general-interest news? The universal experience has been that you can’t.
The New York Times tried it and got hammered. It charged for so-called “Times Select” content - most prominently the paper’s famous opinion columnists like Paul Krugman and David Brooks - for a little while, hoping to crowbar $50 a year out of saps like me.
It worked in my case, but there was a general hue and cry against it (not least from the columnists themselves). The paper quit charging for this premium content, and the whole experiment was chalked up a disaster.
And now Rupert thinks general readers who refused to pay for the quality New York Times are going pay for the proletarian New York Post? And the Sun and the News of the World? And for that matter the Times (your Times). If people didn’t pay for our Times (the New York one - let’s face it, an immeasurably better newspaper these days, such that there’s utterly no comparison anymore between the two), why will they pay for yours? I just don’t see it.
Maybe he’s got something up his sleeve. I’m thinking about the New York Post here, a property I know quite well. I bet Murdoch would say, of the Times’ experiment, that their mistake was to put the highfalutin stuff behind the pay wall. People aren’t really that interested in politics.
So his bet, instead, might be on gossip and sports.
The Post has the most famous newspaper gossip page in America, Page Six. It started as, well, a page in the newspaper, and actually used to be on page six. Now it’s an industry. It runs to three or four pages in the paper most days, has been moved back to page 12 or so while retaining its brand name. There’s also a weekend supplement magazine under the brand, and I think there’s some kind of TV deal.
It’s huge. Movers and shakers in New York and Hollywood (but Washington not so much) read it religiously.
But will they still read it if they have to pay for it? With Gawker and Perez Hilton and TMZ out there? I think some will. I’m not sure tens of thousands will.
Same with sports. The Post’s sports pages are terrific. But they don’t strike me as being quite so terrific that people will forego several roughly-as-good free alternatives.
As for Britain, well, the only thing I can think is that he’s going to put the big knockers behind the pay wall. But of course a lot of that’s free on the web these days too (at least the first look).
Maybe he knows something the rest of the world doesn’t. He often has. Or maybe he’s just losing his touch. I was surprised also to read in Clark’s piece about the jaw-dropping decline in News Corp profits. The newspaper division collapsed, and the television profits went up in smoke.
Hey, if Murdoch’s right, he might introduce the rest of the world to the model that can save the newspaper once and for all. That’d be something to celebrate. Or it could be that we’re getting to the end of the Murdoch era. In that case, I wouldn’t cry.
Tomasky is a blogger for The Guardian in the UK