Jimmy Leach: Murdoch will pay for the end of free news

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The Independent Online

Rupert Murdoch has thrown down the gauntlet to search engines with his threat to charge the likes of Google for presenting his newspapers’ content in search results.

He may find that gauntlet goes untouched.

For Murdoch, it is another step in his campaign of saying something loud enough in the hope that it becomes true. He has begun the retreat from free content (shutting down the Londonpaper, planning to charge on NewsCorp sites) and hopes that others will follow.

In many ways, Murdoch’s not being unreasonable. As he says, quality journalism isn’t cheap (though where that leaves The Sun is another matter). But newspapers have had 15 years of mass internet to work this out, and still haven’t - and in the meantime we’re used to free news on the web, and we’re not going back.

So when Murdoch insists that all newspapers must charge for users to view their content, he is hoping, not guaranteeing. When son James backs it up with a scathing attacks on the BBC, he is attacking the biggest obstacle to the paid-for model – the monolith that insists on giving it all away.

So now Murdoch senior turns the guns on Google – the big cheese amongst his ‘aggregators and plagiarists’ who present The Sun and the Times and all the rest in their search and in Google news. Soon, says Murdoch, they must pay or the ‘content kleptomaniacs will triumph’.

Google’s defence is that it presents links and teasers, not content. And that it sends more than 300 million clicks a month to newspapers. Will Google pay for the right to send those users to News Corp sites? It’s unlikely. Why should they? Not even Murdoch has a copyright on news. If Obama gets the Peace Prize, it happens whether or not the Times reports it, and many others will.

The internet does not look particularly empty to me.

So Murdoch’s papers fall off Google (still by far the route through the web for most people) and retreat behind their paid-for content models. So maybe Google loses a little lustre, but not much. But Murdoch loses his share of those 300 million clicks, and his web traffic plummets. And so, therefore, does advertising revenue. And what is he left with? A small, if admittedly determined rump of users paying to read Jeremy Clarkson…

Murdoch has never shown any real understanding of the attention economy of the web, of the promiscuity of news consumers who cares more for the subject matter than the logo at the top. There is no brand loyalty on the web – especially not if you make your content difficult to find, and you charge people to read it when they’ve done so.

Murdoch is telling Google, and the whole internet that they must change. It’s unlikely either will listen.

* Jimmy Leach is The Independent's Editorial Director for Digital