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FT: Media Have to Challenge Internet's Culture of "Free"

The Financial Times has long had one of the most impressive business strategies among global newspapers, including a truly global focus, high-quality writing and editing, and a strong presence on the web. Rupert Murdoch has made no secret that he hopes to eventually engage his Wall Street Journal in a head-to-head competition with the FT, but for now, the Journal remains very much a U.S.-centric paper, and therefore no match for the smaller but much more international FT.

It isn't surprising, therefore, that one of the best responses I've yet seen to Murdoch's loud pronouncement recently that "the current days of the internet will soon be over," (because publications will all start charging for their content online) came from a writer in the FT.

In his piece, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, surveys all the various pay models being discussed by people in the publishing industry, and demonstrates how complex and difficult it will be to implement them until and unless the media can successfully mount an effective challenge to the prevailing Internet culture's expectation that content will be free.

One thing the Journal and FT share is they are among the very few newspaper sites that charge for some of their online content. Murdoch now is discussing introducing tiered premium content; his company and others like The New York Times are also exploring tiered subscription models, and micro-payment systems.

One plan would essentially hook readers up to the equivalent of a virtual taxi meter, whereby they would be charged proportionately for the amount of content they consumed.

Overall, some hybrid model is likely to emerge from all of this experimentation, I suppose, although it remains extremely difficult for me to imagine consumers accepting these new limits on commodity content like news, opinion, or analysis. There really is nothing unique in most newspapers except the occasional and exclusive investigative report; all the rest resembles the competition, differing only as much as the different colors of autos of the same model sitting on some dealer's lot.

Thus, after a detailed, thoughtful exploration of all of these new potential models, Edgecliffe-Johnson comes back around to the central issue once again: Consumers expect online content to be free, and they have for 15 some years now. In the end, as he notes, changing this "will mean nothing less than challenging the culture of the internet as we currently understand it."

Sorry, Mr. Murdoch. Not even someone as powerful as you is likely to win this particular war. (I said that.)

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