And so the great experiment begins. As Rupert Murdoch announced last year, his newspapers are about to begin charging for content online.

On Friday, The Times and Sunday Times in the United Kingdom announced that from June users would be charged 1 pound for a day’s access, and 2 pounds for a week’s subscription to the website – meaning you would be a dolt not to go for the week.

Print subscribers will get access to the websites included in the cost.

Meanwhile closer to home, The Australian used up precious page print real estate on Saturday to tell us that it would launch an application for the iPad when it is launched in Australia, with users to be charged a monthly subscription. Other News Limited papers will follow.

You can see a sneak preview of  the UK News Limited pay-for websites here.

The Guardian has done the figuring, and reckons that if just five per cent of the current daily users of the UK sites take out subscriptions then it will bring in 1.83 million pounds.

But will readers convert? The truth is that nobody really knows how many of the visitors to news websites are committed and loyal enough to pay for content, and how many are just dropping by.

Information leaking out of various bunkers around the world suggests that News Corporation  is hanging its hat not only on the content, but on various new “apps” that they hope will draw in readers and users. These are expected to include moving images, graphics, interactive comment facilities and personalised news feeds. Doubtless there will be other things that are being kept more deeply under wraps.

Meanwhile info-is-meant-to-be-free evangelist Jeff Jarvis has strong things to say.

“Rupert Murdoch has declared surrender. The future defeated him. By building his paywall around Times Newspapers, he has said that he has no new ideas to build advertising. He has no new ideas to build deeper and more valuable relationships with readers and will send them away if they do not pay. Even he has no new ideas to find the efficiencies the internet can bring in content creation, marketing, and delivery.

Instead, Murdoch will milk his cash cow a pound at a time, leaving his children with a dry, dead beast, the remains of his once proud if not great newspaper empire.”

But let’s face it. Nobody knows if it will work. This comment piece from Forrester Research’s Nick Thomas takes it as far as anyone can, without coming down on one side or the other.

I’m not going to either. I suspect it will work – for some things some of the time. Whether it will be enough to support what we have become accustomed to thinking of as mass media is another thing entirely.

I suspect rather we will see more and more niche media, serving smaller more intensely engaged audiences, while commoditised “leading headline” material is available just about anywhere, and for free.

And I agree with Jeff Jarvis on one thing. There is opportunity in this for people entering the industry with “highly targeted, ruthlessly relevant new news businesses at incredibly low cost and low risk.”

Perhaps the real story is that Murdoch is getting out of the mass news business.

One thing’s for sure. Expect the battle between Murdoch and both the BBC and the ABC to reach a new fever pitch – because let’s face it — tax payer funded free to air news is one of the main threats to any pay-wall strategy.

Peter Fray

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