If Murdoch jumps, will the rest follow?

To my question : “What lord of the nature decreed that newspapers had an exclusive right to the internet?”, the Guardian adds: “ Who made the rule that everything on the internet should be free?” Answering its own question, it confesses media bosses themselves were responsible, treating the internet first as a cute showcase, then an affordable loss leader, before the transformative power of new media finally hit them. Now Rupert Murdoch, faced with a $2 billion loss has decided to cut the crap and charge. It’s one hell of a gamble for him and – let’s be honest – a time of anxiety for folk like us. We’ve had a great free ride. If Rupert jumps will they all jump together? Past experience suggests yes. Down the decades it has been Murdoch through predatory pricing who has sweated out his own losses to smash the competition. But that was for market share. Looking at the future Guardian media for example, this looks like a battle for survival. But with comparatively small sums involved in the newspaper business compared with the whole electronic waterfront – need it be?

Murdoch’s results show that it was his forays into Fox Interactive in the form of MySpace at least as much as newspaper losses that bear responsibility for the writedown. As with the ITV losses and its dumping of Friends Reunited to the Beano, old management has got its fingers badly burnt in this transitional phase of the media revolution. We’ve just been told that Everybody out there seems to value it higher in their lives than everything except food ; but will they be willing to pay when electronic leakage is so easy? Aware of this, Murdoch is likely to adopt a charging model more like his own Wall St Journal and the FT than the New York Times.

The New York Times hoisted a pay wall around its columnists, only to find that everyone stopped reading them. After their precious journo-stars started to complain, the Times abandoned the strategy, but it led directly to the birth of the Huffington Post, a free comment website that provides a far more wide-ranging daily analysis of the US political scene.

But Murdoch executives will have to do better than WSJ boss (and former Times editor) Robert Thomson

The Wall Street Journal editor, Robert Thomson, notably called websites that aggregate other people’s news “parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet

The weakness in Thomson’s argument is that the affluent may be willing to pay for immediate specialised financial reporitng and analysis ( and even that, only if it’s hot); for the rest, there are just too many alternative sources of news out there, led by the BBC but not only the BBC.

Murdoch should be careful about trying to lead a hunt pack against the Corporation. He will have its considerable public value to contend with. Whatever the charging model, I suspect the traditional media will have to do deals with aggregator sites like Huffpost, Google and Yahoo News. The horses in the newspaper stable have bolted. In the short term advertising, the first to fall in a slump is the first to return as it subsides, though probably with smaller shares all round this time. In the medium term, companies like Murdoch’s Newscorp may not be the face of the future. No business model possesses the magic bullet. Part of the answer surely lies with some of the huge new enterprises right along the block , from Microsoft to Google. The future fate of the internet must not rest with micro-communication like Facebook and Twitter on the one hand, and the power of governments and conglomerates on the other. The people must be served.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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