Murdoch versus the internet: 'It's not a war he can win'

Rupert Murdoch’s biographer, Michael Wolff, has mocked the News Corp chairman over his plans to charge for online news with a piece in the latest edition of Vanity Fair headlined: Rupert to Internet: It’s War.

Murdoch plans to start charging for online content at all his newspapers, starting with a brand new Sunday Times website.

Wolff said: “Announcing in August the biggest losses his company has ever sustained, he added that he’d had enough and if people wanted to read his newspapers they could bloody well pay for them.”

But Wolff cautions: “The position of internet professionals is straightforward: while it’s possible to charge for certain kinds of specialized information, there are no significant examples of anyone being able to charge for general-interest information. Sites where pay walls have been erected have suffered cuts in user traffic of as much as 95 percent as audiences merely move on to other, free options.”

Wolff explains Murdoch’s internet gambit using the example of Sunday Times motoring clumnist Jeremy Clarkson:

“Murdoch believes that The Sunday Times has certain franchises so valuable that he will surely be able to capture a paying audience. Jeremy Clarkson is one of News Corp.’s strongest cases. Clarkson, who writes a column about cars, is a veritable British institution–everybody consults Clarkson before buying a car. He is, according to in-house estimates at the Times, now responsible for 25 percent of traffic. “The thinking is that, even if a pay wall cuts Clarkson’s traffic, there are enough fanatical Clarkson readers who will pay enough to make a paid Clarkson more valuable than a free, ad-supported one. But the problem is for Clarkson: Murdoch’s potential gain is Clarkson’s loss. It’s an almost intolerable loss–most of your readers (and their constant and addictive feedback).”

Wolff suggests that part of the reason for Murdoch’s battle against free news online, is that he still doesn’t really understand the internet.

“It is not, what’s more, merely that Murdoch objects to people reading his news for free online; it’s that he objects to–or seems truly puzzled by–what newspapers have become online. You get a dreadful harrumph when you talk to Murdoch about user-created content, or even simple linking to other sites. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t buy it. He doesn’t want it.

“Every conversation I’ve had with him about the new news, about the fundamental change in how people get their news–that users go through Google to find their news rather than to a specific paper–earned me a walleyed stare.

“The more he can choke off the internet as a free news medium, the more publishers he can get to join him, the more people he can bring back to his papers. It is not a war he can win in the long term, but a little Murdoch rearguard action might get him to his own retirement. Then it’s somebody else’s problem.”

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