Rupert Murdoch’s reputation among journalists seems to have steadily improved in recent years.
Once he was widely vilified for the brutal way the print unions were crushed in the move from Fleet Street to Wapping, and for pursuing a right-wing political agenda in his papers.
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But most now seem to admit that moving to new technology, reducing printing costs, and freeing up journalists to have greater control over production gave our national press a new lease of life. And even Murdoch’s most ardent critics would admit that at least he realises the value of quality editorial and invests in his products.
Could it now be that, 23 years after Wapping, Murdoch – at the age of 78 – is about to lead another revolution which could again liberate Britain’s journalism from outdated practices.
Announcing News Corp’s annual results today – he said he plans to charge for all his company’s news websites within the next 12 months.
And with all national newspaper profits currently under unprecedented pressure it appears likely that the other national newspaper groups will follow suit.
To do so in a concerted way would be illegal. But presumably the Barclays, Lord Rothermere, Sly Bailey, Richard Desmond and Gavin O’Reilly know a good opportunity when they see one.
It is a risky ploy for Murdoch but a necessary one.
The latest News Corp figures aren’t as bad as they at-first look. The $3.4bn loss is largely due to an ‘impairment’ charge on the value of things which has a lot to do with accountancy and tax planning – but not much to do with money in and out.
Adjusted operating profit for the business is $3.6bn on turnover of $30bn – which considering the year we have just had is not too shabby at all.
But things are looking much grimmer at the UK national newspaper titles.
News Corp doesn’t break out their figures – but according to documents circulating in Wapping quoted by Private Eye, the Sunday Times lost £16m in the last financial year, compared with a profit of £42.8m the year before, while the NoW made just £5m on turnover of £160m.
The Private Eye figures claim that only The Sun still makes a profit, which it says is £87m – a margin of 20 per cent.
So something must be done.
Quality journalism costs money – and if people want to read it, it seems they are going to have to start paying for it.
We’ve see quality newspaper cover prices rise rapidly over the last year or so to £1 for the Independent, £2 for the FT and 90p each for The Guardian, Telegraph and Times.
At present those loyal print buyers appear to be subsidising a growing-army of online freeloaders.
By charging for online Murdoch could prove to be the saviour of British journalism by saying that quality news should be valued and paid for.
There are massive challenges to charging for online – not least the fact that rival sites will just lift your best stuff and publish it for free.
Murdoch believes he can overcome this by litigation if necessary, saying today: ‘We’ll be asserting our copyright at every point.”
The other big challenge is the BBC’s free-to-air online news service – currently the biggest news website in the UK by some margin. Its wings may need to be clipped for Murdoch’s gambit to work – and I’d wager that Murdoch has already had conversations with the Conservatives to ensure that happens.