For more than a year, News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch has been talking loudly and frequently about the unsustainability of free, ad-supported news production in the age of Google.
Now, he’s making good on some of that bluster.
Beginning in June, the U.K. newspapers The Times and The Sunday Times will begin charging for access to the content on their Web sites, which will be broken out as separate online entities for the first time.
News Corp. plans to charge one pound, or about $1.49, for daily access to the two sites, or two pounds for a weeklong pass.
The move is not News Corp.’s first effort at charging for online newspaper content, though it is the first such attempt with a major consumer publication. The company already places much of the content of the business-oriented Wall Street Journal behind a subscription wall, as does its rival, the Financial Times. Some smaller consumer titles, such as the New York and Long Island paper Newsday, have implemented pay structures, while The New York Times has been publicly mulling its options on that front, but has yet to announce a decision.
Collectively, these efforts represent the struggles of a slumping newspaper industry that has seen print subscriptions and advertising revenues sustain heavy losses, while online ad sales have netted only a fraction of the cost of the newsroom production.
“At a defining moment for journalism, this is a crucial step towards making the business of news an economically exciting proposition,” Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News Corp.’s British News International division, said in a statement. “We are proud of our journalism and unashamed to say that we believe it has value.”
Brooks said that News Corp.’s other U.K. titles would soon migrate to a similar pay structure.
The comments appended to the Times’ news story reporting the plan to charge for access to the sites painted a fair picture of the conflicting attitudes readers have toward paid content on the Web, and the daunting challenge publishers face in trying to open a new revenue stream without driving readers away to other sites that remain free.
While many of the readers expressed sympathy for newspapers’ dilemma, and some said they would be willing to pay the modest fee the Times plans to begin charging, others said that it is hard to justify paying more than a pittance for news content in the fractured media environment of the Web.
“I must say that I really will miss the five minutes or so I spend daily on the Times Web site,” said reader Jim Gates. “It’s become a daily habit just to check in in the morning with coffee. It’s just not worth a hundred quid a year to do that I’m afraid.”
As much as Murdoch has spoken out about the need to start charging consumers for online content, he has also blasted news aggregators, particularly Google, for what he views as wanton infringement of newspapers’ content. A vocal critic of the U.S. doctrine of fair use, the provision of copyright law that allows the unauthorized reproduction of snippets of others’ content, Murdoch has at times talked about mounting a legal challenge to enhance copyright protections, and threatened to pull his sites’ content from Google and other search engines.
Senior Google executives have publicly defended the company’s role in expanding the reach — and therefore the revenue — of newspapers, arguing that Google News directs about 1 billion clicks a month to news sites, each representing an opportunity to generate ad dollars.
Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.