Murdoch Backs Up His Talk, Sets Plan to Charge for U.K. Newspapers

Rupert Murdoch strikes again! His News Corp. said today that starting in June, online readers of The Times of London and its sister newspaper, The Sunday Times, will have to pay for article access.

That's a bold move for The Times, a paper that didn't even start putting articles on its front page until the 1960s (it was all advertisement until then—proof that everything old becomes new again). And it might provide a preview of how the planned New York Times paywall will—or won't—work.

News Corp. has long been on the vanguard of charging for content. Its Wall Street Journal, for example, is the most prominent American paper with a paywall—readers can access some articles for free, but must pay for others. Friday's announcement begins to fulfill a promise Murdoch made last fall to charge for all of his properties. Of course, he's also been rattling his saber at Google, saying the search engine is "stealing" News Corp.'s content, and NEWSWEEK's Weston Kosova made a compelling case in this space that that's no more than bluster. The changes announced today—which also include splitting a single combined site into two—are action, not just talk. Readers will have to pay ₤1 per day (about $1.50) or ₤2 per week.

The papers that have successfully begun to charge are those that offer premium, value-added content. The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times, for instance, offer high quality business news—and many companies are willing to buy subscriptions for employees.

It's less clear how a general-interest national paper like The Times might do, so American newspaper executives will be watching the experiment closely. The New York Times announced in January that it would create a metered pay system, allowing readers to see a certain number of articles for free before they are forced to pony up or go elsewhere—essentially the same as the FT model. But that system isn't scheduled to begin until January 2011. Other papers—notably The Washington Post—do not yet have plans to charge. And since the Long Island daily Newsday instituted a paywall in October, its results have been dismal.

Murdoch's willingness to take a risk on The Times makes him look brave, but it might still end up hurting the paper, which faces stiff domestic competition and—like virtually every newspaper everywhere—has seen a decline in circulation. It also leaves the question of Murdoch's other papers unanswered. What does he intend to do with The Sun (the highest-circulation daily in the U.K.) and the News of the World, the two tabloids he owns in Britain? News Corp. says they, too, will eventually be walled off. But will anyone pay to read trashy celeb gossip or see The Sun's infamous, topless Page 3 girls?

From the reader perspective, the price isn't that onerous. But as more papers begin to charge, voracious readers are going to face the nightmare of remembering an ever-higher number of user names and passwords. Steve Brill has pitched his Journalism Online as a centralized service for publishers to charge readers. Gawker cast a skeptical eye on his results so far in January, but even if publishers are shying away, the service may look more and more attractive to beleaguered readers.