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Note to Rupert Murdoch: Not All Content Is Created Equal

As you by now no doubt know, Rupert Murdoch said last week that he was eventually going to charge for all of his company's online news content. While I believe multiple revenue streams need to be pursued by content companies, Murdoch's plan raises questions not only about what content people will pay for, but also about what constitutes content, because it opens the door to a broader discussion about whether people would pay for access to a wide array of News Corp. digital properties, some of which has already been hinted at by company executives. Here are the big questions Murdoch's plan raises for me ... and some answers.

  1. Will a lot of people really pay to have an online sub to The New York Post? No. In the past, Murdoch has cited the success of The Wall Street Journal Online's subscription model as a reason why online subscription models can be built -- but the problem with this is that not all newspaper content is worth paying for. The Journal is not only a must-read for financial types, it also, in many cases, is paid for by one's employer. While it's one thing to pay to find out that State Street might not have adequate financial reserves to pay legal fees related to the subprime crisis, it's entirely another to actually pay to know that Lady Gaga doesn't wear fur. My bet is that most people won't, or that The New York Post might see a slight uptick in newsstand sales, as people shell out only now and then for their favorite pop culture fix.
  2. Is there any way to charge for MySpace? Barely. If Murdoch is serious that he wants to charge for content, than you could extend that to MySpace, the once-hot social net that's now the clear no. 2 behind Facebook and a major hub for user-generated content. Of course, MySpace's current position in the marketplace is one reason News Corp. can't charge for it. Another is that the social networking space didn't "grow up" with a subscription model, so it's going to be hard to start one now (even though I really think that people should value their social networks enough to pay for them). However, MySpace might be able to get away with charging for one niche by offering it premium tools that help with marketing: musicians and other entertainers, for which it has become an invaluable way to get noticed.
  3. Can Hulu develop a subscription model? Yes. But it had better act quickly. Actually, it was News Corp. digital chief Jon Miller, not Rupert Murdoch, who specifically addressed this at a conference back in June. (Hulu is partly-owned by News Corp., NBC Universal and Disney.) He said at the time that he felt part of the site could follow a subscription model. Even though Hulu's advertising model is still very much a work in progress, it will probably never sell enough advertising to make up for audience that it is siphoning away from broadcast TV; the model respects the users disdain for commercials almost too much for its own good. Therefore, it needs to develop a subscription model, before consumers get too used to having their cake and eating it too. When it does roll out that model, it needs to emphasize to consumers just how great it is to be able to watch quality TV, anytime, anywhere -- in other words that some of it, at least, is worth paying for
So, to sum it up, it doesn't work for Murdoch, or anyone else, to treat the Web as a medium which either goes paid or unpaid. There are simply too many different components to it to roll out one model and expect it to stick, even within content categories, like online news. While I'm certain that online subscription revenue will be a growing money-maker for many major media companies, it will only come in fits and starts. If Murdoch makes good on his words, he gets to be the industry's guinea pig.
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