Press groups watch as Murdoch charges

BY NICK CHURCHOUSE
Last updated 05:00 29/03/2010

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International media juggernaut Rupert Murdoch has signalled his next offensive in the internet news game.

From May, News International's centrepiece British newspapers The Times and the Sunday Times will be available online for 1 pound (NZ$2.11) a day or 2 pounds for a week's subscription.

Two new websites will replace the existing combined site, Times Online. The sites will be free to subscribers of the print editions of the two newspapers.

Declining revenues in print media have forced newspapers and magazines to look at new ways of earning as the public increasingly expects free news online.

Fairfax Media group executive editor Paul Thompson said Britain was too different to ascertain the impact the move would have locally.

"It is a significant move for those titles and for that market and we will watch with interest as it unfolds."

He said a new business model, possibly incorporating aspects of Mr Murdoch's move, may be relevant in time for Fairfax, which publishes stuff.co.nz, The Dominion Post and The Press. "It will be interesting to see how readers and the papers' competitors react. At best this model – to charge in some way for general interest news – may become just one of many new digital initiatives that will support media businesses."

News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks said the charges were a crucial step towards making the news business "economically exciting".

The Financial Times already makes readers pay for some online content, while the Wall Street Journal – also part of Murdoch's media empire – is currently the only major US newspaper charging readers for full access online.

The New York Times announced in January it would start charging for online content in early 2011.

New Zealand's weekly NBR business paper locked up much of its online content for subscribers last year and copped negative feedback but has stuck with the plan.

George Brock, professor and head of journalism at City University London, described the Murdoch move as an "experimental toe in the water", but said its success could depend on whether or not The Times' competitors also started charging.

Mr Thompson said it was hard to see how it would work with general news in the New Zealand context, but added there were alternatives.

"Another business model will also develop around particular applications and devices which will allow us to commercialise digital content in new ways."

Online publisher Bernard Hickey, a former head of digital at Fairfax, said the News International strategy was destined to fail.

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"This is a big move, Rupert Murdoch's flag in the ground if you like. And he's done it with his highest-value newspapers. I think it will fail."

Mr Hickey said the basic idea that people would pay for general news was wrong. Only specialist publishers like the Wall Street Journal had clients with the resources to pay for such information.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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