OFF THE GRID

What’s Really Going on Behind Murdoch’s Paywall?

Jul 14, 10 | 5:14 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Rupert Murdoch is trying to make news at the Times and Sunday Times in London—but he’s not reporting on it. Will his paywall work is the biggest story in the media business, and it would be quite a journalistic coup to document the progress, or lack thereof, that’s being made in trying to convince a skeptical world to shell out 2£ ($3) a week for what’s heretofore been free.

He is not reporting on himself because even less than most news outlets, Murdoch outlets have no objective sense when it comes to their own interests (or the boss’s interests), or willingness to ask questions which the boss might find uncomfortable, or penchant for anything but the party line. The news from News Corp. is always snarlingly good—even when it is very bad.

My sources say that not only is nobody subscribing to the website, but subscribers to the paper itself—who have free access to the site—are not going beyond the registration page. It’s an empty world.

The wider implications of this emptiness are only just starting to become clear. A Murdoch and Fleet Street veteran with whom I’ve been corresponding about the paywall reported to me on his recent conversation with an A-list entertainment publicist: “What was really interesting to me was that this person volunteered a blinding realization. ‘Why would I get any of my clients to talk to the Times or the Sunday Times if they are behind a paywall? Who can see it? I can't even share a link and they aren't on search. It’s as though their writers don't exist anymore.’”

“What Rupert always does,” added my correspondent, “is use whatever technology is available as a publishing mechanism. In this, they are reshaping the Internet, or at least the world wide web, as a simple one-way publishing tool. Take us or leave us. Most will leave. But it fits perfectly with Rupert’s vision and particularly the sentiment of Sunday Times editor John Witherow, who would prefer never to hear a peep from his readers once he has watched the paper leave Wapping in gigantic trucks on a Saturday night. (Not that they leave Wapping anymore, but you get my drift.)”

Murdoch, the historic bugbear of journalists (at least those who don’t work for him) has, curiously, managed to court the journalism community with some success in the matter of his paywall experiment. David Mitchell, writing in the Observer on Sunday in a heavily retweeted article, was full of ire about the righteousness of free news and enthusiasm about the prospects for Internet payment plans—he sees Murdoch as the last best hope for getting us paid for our labors.

Beyond the fact that we journalists, behind a paywall, will have fewer readers (our real currency), Murdoch, I rush to remind, has always run a ruthless newsroom, in which nobody comes out ahead but Rupert. In that light, it may be better to see the paywall as not about making more but about costing less. The paywall, and the integration of the Times and the Sunday Times behind it, becomes the deus ex machina by which (and this has long been a Murdoch dream) Murdoch and his son, James, the paper’s boss (with his eager corporate lieutenants, Rebekah Wade Brooks and Will Lewis), happily tear up several centuries of history and join the Times and the Sunday Times—and save a fortune.

It’s a big story—but you won’t read about it in the papers that know it best.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.

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OFF THE GRID is about why the news is the news. Here are the real motivations of both media and newsmakers. Here's the backstory. This is a look at the inner workings of desperate media, the inner life of the publicity crazed, and the true meaning of the news of the day.

 

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