The days of being able to read newspapers for free on the internet are coming to a close, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch signaled, as he promised The Times and The Sun would begin charging for access to their websites within months.
In a sweeping rethink of how the beleaguered newspaper industry operates, the News Corporation founder declared that quality journalism must come at a price.
"We will be platform neutral, but never free," Mr Murdoch told investors, moments after revealing that plunging revenues from his newspapers had helped push the company into the red. With newspaper advertising collapsing, "the drumbeat for change" is only growing louder, he said. "Quality journalism is not cheap, and an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalising its ability to produce good journalism."
The plan to charge for online news is being hatched by a team of Mr Murdoch's senior lieutenants, including his son James, and Rebekah Wade, the editor of The Sun who is moving up to become head of News International, the newspaper division that controls the company's four British titles.
And it could also mean the start of charges to access Sky News on the internet, Rupert Murdoch signaled last night. The same online strategy will be adopted at News Corp's US businesses, which include the Fox News cable channel and The New York Post newspaper.
Only one Murdoch newspaper currently charges for access to its website: The Wall Street Journal, which he bought two years ago. At the time of the acquisition, the mogul planned to scrap the charges, but changed his mind on realising that he would not recoup the lost revenue by charging more for adverts.
Executives are still to decide how much the UK's online newspaper readers will be billed and for what sorts of content, but Mr Murdoch said he was not scared about losing readers if he is the first to start charging. "If we are successful, we will be followed by all," he predicted. Fees will be introduced by the end of News Corp's financial year, which runs until next June.
Advertising at Mr Murdoch's four UK titles fell 18 per cent in the three months to the end of June, News Corp revealed last night. While the rest of the sprawling media company, which also owns TV networks in the US and satellite television in Europe and Asia, has seen a rebound in advertising income in July, Mr Murdoch said, there has been no such rebound in newspaper ads. The 78-year-old businessman declared again that he would emerge stronger from the current recession, particularly if it puts rival newspapers out of business. Amidst rumours in the UK that loss-making Guardian Media Group has hatched a plan to scrap its Sunday paper The Observer, Mr Murdoch was asked if he might consider buying it. "Hell no," he replied. "Why?"