The decline of Murdoch – a good thing for the flow of information?

Rupert Murdoch

Will the decline of the Murdoch empire have an impact on paywalls? Image c/o DonkeyHotey on Flickr

The past couple of weeks have been pretty momentous in the worlds of media and politics.  The revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone (falsely raising the hopes of both family and friends) have marked a new low in the history of the British press. Whilst the antics of the tabloid press should surprise no-one, a widespread sense of shock and disbelief at the depths that they would sink has engulfed the general public.  At the heart of this developing scandal lies News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch.  Already withdrawing their attempt to takeover BSkyB, could we be witnessing the slow, public death of one of the largest and most powerful news organisations in the world?  If so, could this have ramifications for accessibility to online information?

“The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

It is widely acknowledged that Murdoch doesn’t really ‘get’ the internet. Over the course of the past year, News Corporation has made moves to place their newspaper websites behind paywalls.  As The Guardian reported back in 2009, Murdoch envisaged a great change in the way information was accessed online:

Asked whether he envisaged fees at his British papers such as The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World, he replied: “We’re absolutely looking at that.” Taking questions on a conference call with reporters and analysts, he said that moves could begin “within the next 12 months‚” adding: “The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

Such moves were cause for great concern.  Many libraries provide access to newspapers for free and, with declining budgets, it raised the question: should libraries subscribe to online newspaper content for their users?  But it also raised a greater and more important question.  If information is increasingly to be found behind paywalls in a time when libraries are faced with closure, how will we ensure equal access to information for all?  As we know (and as I repeatedly refer back to on this very blog!), 9 million people in this country have never even used the Internet.  The combination of their library closing and a wealth of information being kept behind paywalls would surely entrench the digital divide yet further – ensuring that a substantial proportion of the population never have access to the amount of information that the rest of us take for granted.

The initial impact of the paywall was stark.  Shortly after The Times paywall went up, The Guardian reported a 90% decline in visits.  People had become used to accessing information freely, without recourse to their debit or credit card.  And where one organisation leads, others follow.  The New York Times has suffered a 15% decline in visits since it also launched a paywall.  Whilst not a substantial decline, it is a decline nonetheless and an indication that people will turn away from paywalled content and access their information from elsewhere (which perhaps explains News Corporation’s repeated attacks on the BBC – the largest provider of free news content in the country).

But, with the foundations of the Murdoch media empire seemingly crumbling before our eyes, could this have implications for paywalled newspaper content?  Should Murdoch give up his stake in his remaining newspapers, would a new owner turn their backs on paywalled content?  Or has News Corporation set the Internet on an irreversible path?  I fear it may be the latter, but I remain hopeful that it is the former.