Rupert Murdoch and the Future of Journalism

It’s reported that Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp., pledged last week that his company has plans to charge for the online news content of all its newspapers and television channels.  Though the announcement came with few details as to when the charges will commence or how they will be structured, the fact that it is Murdoch who is leading this campaign is hugely important.

This, because nobody is better equipped– by background, influence, knowledge, or constitution–to attempt such a move.

One of the most telling examples of Murdoch’s shrewdness and tenacity was put on display in 1986 when, as chronicled by his biographer, William Shawcross, he broke the Fleet Street print unions that went on strike against his plans to modernize his newspapers’ printing processes.  Against all odds the striking union members, 6,000 strong, were obliged to surrender a year later after it transpired that the company had built and secretly equipped a new printing plant for all of its British newspapers in the London district of Wapping.

If News Corp.’s plans fail it will send shock waves throughout the industry, but if it succeeds — that is, if its titles can generate sufficient revenue from access fees and advertising — Murdoch will be owed an enormous debt by newspaper publishers here and abroad.  They won’t pay that debt, and some, like The New York Times, are unlikely even to acknowledge it, but it is certain that many will follow his lead, as Murdoch himself claims.

That he is very much on their minds even now is shown in a remarkable story published yesterday (Sunday) in The Observer, sister paper of The Guardian in the UK, one of Murdoch’s biggest political and business adversaries.

The lead paragraph sums things up nicely: "Rupert  Murdoch is often cast as the villain of the newspaper trade, but having revitalized the Wall Street Journal and with his radical plans to charge for access to online papers, he could be the unlikely saviour of the beleaguered industry."

And what a relief that would be!  Because if professional journalism is to survive it will have to be paid for, and paid for handsomely.  And the only way to do that is by putting together a business plan that features at least two revenue streams.

Whatever the outcome, Murdoch’s plan provides a stark contrast with the naive and corrosive idea, entertained by some, that journalism can survive on a diet of investigative news stories issuing from nonprofits, "citizen journalism," and greater funding for public media.