Murdoch's New iPaper: One Last Tragic Roll Of The Digital Dice

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“Rupert Murdoch To Launch New National Newspaper”.

As headlines go, that’s up there with “DeLorean To Unveil New ‘Gull-Wing’ Car”, “Freddy Laker Reveals Trans-Atlantic Airline Plans” and “Charge! says Light Brigade” – reading it, you assume either there’s been some kind of historical glitch in your RSS reader or that someone is making a wry joke about extreme business hubris. Surely no-one, not even a dyed-in-the-wool newspaperman like Murdoch, would be stupid enough to launch a new national title in the current climate.

But no – the story’s true, albeit with a technological twist that makes the move sound only 1% less suicidal: Murdoch’s new paper (launching ‘by the end of the year’) will be available only on tablets like the iPad. And readers will have to pay to view it. Oh, Rupert, you crazy old lunatic.

Of course the idea is doomed – that much should go without saying. Like so many of Murdoch’s recent forays into paid-for online news, it reflects less a bold strategy to convince a new generation of readers that good journalism is worth paying for and more the 79-year News Corp proprietor’s desperation to keep the cash flow coming until the company’s profitability becomes someone else’s problem.

But what’s remarkable about this current escapade is that Murdoch is actually proposing to sell a product that people have previously failed to even give away for free.

As the LA Times explains, Murdoch hopes that his new e-daily will ‘reach readers who increasingly consume their news on the go… offering short, snappy stories that could be digested quickly.’ Says the man himself: “We’ll have young people reading newspapers… It’s a real game changer in the presentation of news.”

Now where have I heard that before? Oh yeah. I heard it back in London, in 2006, when a company by the name of News International launched a new free daily newspaper called ‘thelondonpaper’ (punctuation theirs – the paper was aimed squarely at the ‘web generation’ who, like their 7th century counterparts, are too busy for spaces between their words). This paper too was “targeted towards young readers, with emphasis on celebrity and more light-hearted news [with] little analysis of news stories and… lots of images and colour.” News International’s ambition with thelondonpaper was clearly stated: it would win back young, urban readers who had turned their back on traditional newspapers in favour of the Internet.

Of course, they failed: despite a polished product – handed out for free each morning at every Tube station in London – the paper published its last issue in 2009, having cost News International’s owner tens of millions of pounds in the process. Young people, meanwhile, carried on getting their “light heated news with little analysis and lots of colour” from the Internet.

And the name of News International’s owner – the man who lost all that money trying to launch a new newspaper to compete with the Internet? Rupert Murdoch. He’d have to be delusional to try again.

Murdoch, however, is nothing if not delusional. Rather than learning from thelondonpaper and accepting that young people don’t want to read newspapers – not even on the London Underground, one of the few places in the world where they struggle to access the Internet – he’s taking another shot. And this time he’s bringing the war right to the Internet’s home turf: erecting a paywall, piling up pithy analysis-free stories behind it and genuinely believing that these “young people” whose approbation – and Paypal dollars – he so desperately craves will choose to subscribe, paying to read the same content as they can currently enjoy for free on any of a billion blogs and rival free news sites. To say that’s a bold move is like describing the Charge of the Light Brigade in similar terms. Except that 278 people paid for the Charge of the Light Brigade.

No, this is way more than bold: this is the last gasp effort of a man who knows the end is nigh. Murdoch’s print publications are hemorrhaging readers to online,and yet  his grand experiment with getting people to pay for digital content – building a paywall around the Times in London; a newspaper traditionally read by an older, perhaps more willing to pay, audience – has yielded only “disappointing” results. It’s no use.

But then again, at 79 years old, the undisputed king of newspapers really has nothing to lose by taking one last roll of the digital dice before giving up the ghost for good. If nothing else, it makes for a great headline.

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