Will Rupert Murdoch Be the Pied Piper of Paid Content?

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Sajjad Hussain / AFP / Getty

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch

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Internet experts say that almost everybody who has ever tried charging for content has failed. Murdoch is out of touch, they suggest. Michael Wolff, whose book on Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, came out in December, says he was shocked to learn that Murdoch didn't have an e-mail address, could barely use his cell phone and had not been on the Internet unaided. "Technology," writes Wolff, "has always been regarded as one of those things, like fancy hotels, or long-form writing, that are not part of [News Corp.'s] culture."

Still, Murdoch has shown himself more than willing to lose staggering amounts of money and engage in litigation in order to see his vision through or lay siege to his competitors. Sometimes his aggressive moves pay off (as in British pay cable operator BskyB) and sometimes they don't (as in TV Guide). Plus, with his cable operations showing robust growth, he has a cushion that few of his newspaper competitors possess.

If Murdoch can somehow figure out how to make money while other news companies wither in advertising-only models, he could have a little monopoly. "Murdoch has always been a huge gambler, but a calculated gambler," says Roy Greenslade, who worked for Murdoch for several years in Britain and is now a media columnist. "And he's always had a desire for a monopoly." Greenslade, for the record, thinks Murdoch is barking up the wrong tree.

Others think that bark may be more a call to arms than an actual intention. "The news world treats Rupert as an oracle," says Ken Doctor, a news-industry analyst for Outsell. "He could be trying to be the pied piper." The New York Times, which in the past has experimented with charging for online content, is expected to make an announcement about a new fee model at the end of summer. In the days that followed Murdoch's announcement, the Financial Times, which charges for some content, and the Boston Globe dropped hints that they were looking into different payment schemes. Time Inc. has raised the possibility of charging for content. Even Mort Zuckerman, who owns Murdoch's New York City rival tabloid the Daily News, joined the fray. "[A pay wall] is a great idea," he told Forbes on Aug. 7. "I'll be the second or third to do it. Not the first."

There's a third way, suggests Doctor, which Murdoch might actually be envisaging. He thinks a type of all-access pass to News Corp.'s media properties would work. It could be delivered to any screen — a phone or other wireless device, an e-reader, a computer or a TV — all for $10 to $15 a month. Conventional wisdom is that it can't be done any other way, that people simply won't pay for news on their computer when they can get it elsewhere for free.

If Murdoch goes the fee route, then when one of his heirs takes over the reins, the newspapers won't be a problem because the pay wall will have destroyed them.

Or cured them. After all, if he never bet against conventional wisdom, Murdoch would still be the proud owner of the Barrier Miner — the local paper of the outback town of Broken Hill, Australia — and nothing else.

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