There’s a certain irony in the fact that at 80 Rupert Murdoch is championing quality journalism and the need to pay for it.

In 2009, at 78, he woke up to what was happening in online publishing and said: “we’ve been asleep”, adding that the instant tycoons over at Google were “kleptomaniacs”, stealing his stories.

So last year The Times of London became subscription only, and The Australian is due to follow it behind a paywall in a few months, although it’s likely to go with the Wall Street Journal model of only partially locking up the site and allowing “first click free” via Google, where even the locked stories can be accessed for free through the search engine.

As he’s done all his life, Rupert Murdoch has got everyone talking, except that whereas it’s usually because everyone is shocked at some new lowbrow depth to which his journalists have sunk, such as tapping celebrities’ phones, in his dotage Rupert has managed to be the centre of a debate about the business model for quality journalism.

Not a bad effort, and if I didn’t know better I’d think it was a strategy devised by a PR firm charged with changing his image.

Fact is, though, that the News of the World is now behind a paywall as well and it might be more successful at it than The Times or The Australian.

I mean who could resist “ANDREW AND THE S-X SLAVE BEAST”? I attempted to read that gem on the News of the World website this week and was told I had to register; if I did I would be given a four-week free trial, after which I would be charged 2 pounds every four weeks. A 24-hour pass costs 1 pound. I gave up, and remain unhappily ignorant about Andrew and what he did with the s-x slave beast.

Actually Rupert’s conversion to the cause of paid-for quality journalism is not so much irony as a decision, knowingly or not, to forgo influence for money. Perhaps it’s because at his age power no longer has the same appeal, and his children don’t care about it anyway.

A hallmark of Rupert Murdoch’s 57-year career as a media proprietor has been his ability to combine great wealth with great power through popular journalism. Julia Gillard is having lunch with him this week in New York. He could pick up the phone to most heads of state, and most fear him.

He has achieved this through a combination of large circulation, lowbrow products, as well as some quality ones like The Times and The Australian and a willingness to tell his editors what to publish. He is both chairman and editor in chief.

With online publishing you can have subscriptions or you can have influence, but you can’t have both.

That is to say, if News Corporation takes all of the websites of its publications behind subscription paywalls, and keeps them there, they might make a profit but they won’t sell enough to disturb any politician’s sleep.

The once-feared Murdoch family would become just another business, trying to keep its little group of customers happy so they’ll come back next month or next year.

This is the great and permanent change that the internet has wrought on publishing: it is no longer possible to both build a large audience by employing journalists and get rich. The publishing oligopoly used to charge enough for advertising to do both, but online advertising prices are too low for that.

Some people are getting rich from online publishing, but they are operating search engines that deliver other peoples’ content (kleptomaniacs?), social media operators whose pages are filled for free by the users themselves, and, lately, “daily deal” operators like Groupon

It is a modern truism that wealth and media power do not go hand in hand online. When The Australian goes behind its paywall, its considerable influence in local politics will depend on the sales of the print product because it’s unlikely that the numbers reading the website will be enough.

Rupert Murdoch recently launched an iPad-only subscription “newspaper” — The Daily — which the company says has had “hundreds of thousands of downloads”. Maybe, but what matters are its subscriber numbers in two years time. If running costs are drastically reduced, it might make a profit but I’m guessing the numbers won’t be enough for the President to return the 82-year-old Rupert Murdoch’s phone call … except out of nostalgia.

*This originally appeared on Business Spectator.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.