Is Free News on The Internet Over?

Publishers mull the difficult question: how much is news worth to readers?

ByABC News
August 21, 2009, 9:06 AM

21 Aug, 2009— -- Rupert Murdoch has no use for computers. The 78-year-old Australian-American media billionaire doesn't like e-mail, he avoids the Internet and he even has trouble using his mobile phone. He doesn't exactly fit the picture of an online messiah.

But in recent weeks, Murdoch startled the publishing world when he uttered a few sentences that were as simple as they were revolutionary, such as: "Quality journalism isn't cheap." That led to his decision to start charging for online use of his many newspapers around the globe in the coming months. If Murdoch has his way, the days of free culture on the Internet will be numbered.

The CEO of News Corporation, and owner of hundreds of newspapers and television stations, had hardly spoken before publishers around the world agreed. If anyone had needed proof that Murdoch is still the mogul of media moguls, this was it.

Murdoch, of all people, who, as his biographer Michael Wolff recently complained, doesn't even know "what the Internet is." The old man, Wolff added, might be on the verge of bringing about important changes on the Internet, but only "if he can find it."

The aging businessman may indeed know little about the Internet, and no one knows how serious he is about his idea. But one thing is certain: A man like Murdoch is not about to stand on the sidelines while he loses money. He has also struck a nerve in the industry, once again.

Free Content: A Steep Cliff for a Herd of Lemmings

Everyone dreams of making real money on the Internet, from the Sunday Times to the Nordkurier, a regional paper in northeastern Germany. Until now, publishers have generally given away their content on the Web, hoping to make their money with advertising revenues. They have realized that charging for their content is bad for business, at least as long as readers can find what they're looking for elsewhere. The New York Times tried it and, like many others, abandoned the attempt.

But now the advertising business is in sharp decline, both in print media and on the Internet, and with it a business model, or rather, the hope that it would materialize. So far the concept has only been successful for a few providers, including SPIEGEL ONLINE. The free Web culture holds "about as much future for journalism as a steep cliff for a herd of lemmings," warns Walter Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time. But what is the alternative?

Can readers become accustomed to paying for content once again? Or is paid content merely committing suicide out of fear of death?

It seems that some publishing executives are worried about the question of what sort of original content they could even sell to their customers that isn't available a mouse click away, and free of charge. The anxiety-provoking answer to that question is simple: nothing.

Paid content is a test of two things: the assessments of readers and the confidence of publishers in their own content.