US Outlook: Rupert Murdoch is big, so powerful, and so confoundingly successful in the news business, that when he says he will start to charge for access to his newspapers' websites, it has the status of a Declaration of a New Age. After a decade of giving away online that for which they charge at the newsstands, newspaper executives are finally saying enough is enough.
It's desperate stuff. It won't work, and if newspaper executives on both sides of the Atlantic follow Mr Murdoch's apparent lead, I predict we will witness the collective suicide of scores of news organisations in the US and elsewhere. Some viable players will squander the chance to find a place in a new landscape of the news business, which is only just starting to be mapped out.
There's a delicious irony here. Mr Murdoch, pictured below, knows as well as anyone that news consumers are price sensitive creatures. It is 15 years since he launched his UK broadsheet price war by slashing the price of The Times. He knows that millions of urban readers have found themselves perfectly satisfied reading recycled news in freesheets such as Metro in Britain or amNewYork.
By unilaterally raising the price of his websites – by whatever model he alights on, from zero today – he hopes to tempt others to do the same, at a stroke fatally undermining their readership, their political clout and their social relevance. I think it is probably suicidal even for Mr Murdoch's titles. The Sun and the New York Post get an "astronomical" number of hits when they have a celebrity scoop, he pleads, but he's talking about a few stories a week at best, and a scoop is only a scoop for a fraction of a second on the web. News Corp has copyright on the words its journalists write, but no patent on the facts they discover. As for the broadsheets, how many survey-the-world generalist news organisations does the internet need? Maybe The Times of London, as it is called here, will be strong enough to be one, maybe not.
The problem with many papers is not what they charge for what they do. It is what they actually do. A vast amount of content duplicates information available elsewhere. In any other industry, we would call this overcapacity. The reallocation of resources that must come, towards investigative journalism and high-value comment and analysis, will be more painful for some newspapers than others, and competition is much fiercer in a multi-platform world.
Trade magazines, many of which have always charged online subscription fees, have a head start in the area of subject specialisms, and they have already been joined by start-ups like Politico.com, covering US politics, and a myriad other ad-supported blogs run by investigative journalists willing to work for much lower remuneration. Many newspapers that introduce online fees without reforming what they do could end up looking little more than high-priced aggregators, a kind of Huffington Post that isn't free. New platforms, though, such as e-readers and the Apple iPhone, do at least give newspapers a chance to experiment with hooking people on paying for their editorialising services.
My view is that the solution lies not in jacking up prices for newspapers on the web but by inventing new news products that are powerful enough to persuade people to pay for them. My local paper, The New York Times, is making another stab at introducing charges for parts of NYTimes.com, the world's most popular newspaper website. It is asking readers about two subscription packages that it calls NYT Silver and NYT Gold, which look to me like a hybrid of two potential ideas that could help save newspapers. The packages include just the sort of new features newspaper sites need, such as access to a PDF archive of the paper going back 160 years, and access to a scrolling list of new articles before they go live on the website for free. I think readers might well be persuaded to pay individually for those features, and they could be sold as applications for the iPhone and other mobile devices, where people are not already hooked on free.
But NYT Gold and Silver are pitched as if they are memberships to a New York Times fan club, complete with mugs, discounted tickets to reader events and chances to visit the newsroom. This sounds a lot to me like another option for newspapers, which is to turn them into charities and to run frequent "pledge drives" of the sort that sustain public radio in the US and that other challenger to newspapers, Wikipedia. A friend of mine told me this week how he had signed up to pay a monthly subscription to the "Times Reader" service on NYTimes.com, not because he felt the service was worth it but because he wanted to give the paper money to help it survive.
I wonder if newspapers of a liberal bent – particularly if they are associated with strong values, such as commitments to causes like the environment, say, or cleaning up politics – are best placed to do that. Not, in other words, Mr Murdoch's stable.