Summary:

Rupert Murdoch really, really, really wants to charge for online news. Really. At least, he keeps saying so even though by far the bulk of N…

News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch
photo: AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File

Rupert Murdoch really, really, really wants to charge for online news. Really. At least, he keeps saying so even though by far the bulk of News Corp.’s online news content continues to be ad supported. Wednesday, finally setting even the most vague of timetables, he said that would change starting in the next 12 months: “We’re thinking in terms of this fiscal year.”

The News Corp chairman and CEO told analysts and reporters during the Q4 earnings call: “We intend to charge for our news websites. The Wall Street Journal‘s WSJ.com is the world’s most successful paid news site and we will be using our profitable experience there and the resulting unique skills throughout News Corp (NYSE: NWS). to increase our revenues from all our content.” Murdoch cited the arrival of Jon Miller as chief digital officer and his work “leading a company-wide effort to establish a new economic model to profitably transition our print properties to digital.”

What does that mean? While News Corp. execs have been a tad shy with actual details, using WSJ.com as a model suggests we’re not talking about the pay fortress so many people immediately started to visualize.

WSJ.com is a hybrid model of subscription and ad-support, with more content available for “free” under News Corp. then when it was owned by Dow Jones. (Chris Anderson prefers to call it “freemium” but then his goal is to sell books by coining cool terms.) Murdoch himself has swung between opening access to WSJ.com and charging for it any number of times; the steep decline in advertising has converted him into a pay evangelist, a pragmatic one with a belief in multiple revenue streams. That belief means not cutting off advertising, which is why you’re not likely to see any of the News Corp. news sites completely walled off.

The message: But Murdoch ramped up the rhetoric a bit. “Quality journalism is not cheap and an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalizing its ability to produce good reporting. … We can be platform-neutral but never free.” And Chase Carey chimed in on his first call as vice chairman and COO: “We believe customers value quality journalism. We need to get paid for our product as it shifts to the digital world.”

The problem? Beyond the “OMG, he’s going to kill the sites by shutting off the free oxygen” factor already making the rounds like the wave, not all News Corp. news outlets are created equal. WSJ.com and its offshoots produce financial news and info for which a small group of people are willing to pay decent sums. Not the amounts Murdoch thought they would pay, but still real money. But Murdoch’s plans include charging for the websites of UK tabloids The Sun and the News of the World; U.S. tabloid the New York Post, which already failed with its own celeb site sunk by high expenses; for general newspapers like the Times of London and The Australian. They also include non-print sites like FoxNews.com. What will News Corp. charge for? MIcropayments to see the Sun‘s topless Page 3 girls (or maybe 10p not to see them)? “World exclusive” interviews with 15-second celebs? Bill O’Reilly outtakes?

When a reporter for the Daily Telegraph asked about charging for sites that aren’t “quality,” Murdoch quickly replied: “I think they are very, very high quality and they’re entertaining.” When the question extended to the same content being available across the web at no fee, Murdoch was equally quick: “Not if they’re ours. We will be asserting our copyright at every point. … You can sneer at it from the Telegraph but I’m sure your great scoop, the about parliamentary expenses, people would be very happy to have been paying for that on a website.” Still, no details about what he would charge for, how or how much.

Asked by a reporter for UK rival Guardian (our corporate big sibling) what he could do to stop readers from migrating to free sites, Murdoch simply said: “Just make our content better and differentiate it from other people. And I believe if we’re successful, we will be followed by all the media.” He added, “Frankly, the big free competition will be coming from the BBC.”

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