Last Wednesday, oft-vilified media mogul Rupert Murdoch announced that News Corp. — parent company of (among others) the Times of London, the New York Post, and Fox News — will soon begin charging readers for access to all its news sites.
Reaction was swift and skeptical. In the New York Times, for example, David Carr suggested that Murdoch's statement, which was made during an earnings conference call, might simply have been an attempt to divert attention from News Corp.'s recent fiscal woes. And Michael Wolff — whose Murdoch biography, The Man Who Owns the News, was published last year — argued that Murdoch's plan made sense less as a business proposition than as a manifestation of its author's contrarian temperament. ("What he is going to do," Wolff wrote, "is the thing he has always done: buck convention, offend sensibilities, and not pussyfoot around.")
But might something more profound be at work here? After all, if Murdoch does move a substantial portion of News Corp. content behind a pay wall, the only people he'll be offending will be new-media triumphalists who believe that (as the saying goes) information wants to be free. Meanwhile, he'll actually be endearing himself to scores of old-media luminaries who've never quite kicked the conviction that this is a bunch of BS. (Here's Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, in February: "Really good information, often extracted from reluctant sources, truth-tested, organized, and explained — that stuff wants to be paid for.")
Unlike most pundits who've weighed in on Murdoch's move, the Guardian's James Robinson got the irony of Murdoch offering himself as a savior to the Bill Kellers of the world. "One of the most intriguing aspects of the Murdoch plan," Robinson noted, "is that it has recast him as an industry savior in the eyes of some of his critics, who previously regarded him as an enemy of the 'quality journalism' he now claims he is attempting to rescue. . . . If [Wolff] writes a sequel, he may have to call it The Man Who Saved the News."
That's a keen insight — but it needs to be pushed a bit further.
In Wolff's biography, Murdoch emerges as an iconoclast who's also tempted by the siren song of journalistic respectability. His purchase of the Wall Street Journal nicely captured this tension: it could be interpreted either as Murdoch using his deep pockets to scandalize the journalistic priesthood, or as Murdoch using his deep pockets to obtain some highbrow cred.
This paid-content quest, though, suggests that Murdoch's ambivalence may be a thing of the past. True, his success is hardly assured. (If you charge for the Post's Page Six, won't readers just get the same news for free at TMZ or Gawker? And just how much of an online market is there for the Times of London's highbrow culture coverage?) But if Murdoch does make it work, he won't have destroyed some hoary shibboleth. Instead, he'll have retrofitted a deeply traditional model of news consumption for a new age.
Which brings us to Murdoch's motives. As a spur to action, the lure of heroism is fundamentally conservative. After all, you don't seek the gratitude of the masses if you don't care what they think. That's why — despite the uncertainty that currently surrounds Murdoch's aims — it's hard to read this maneuver, which comes as he nears his ninth decade, as anything less than a reluctant renegade's final, belated bid for respectability.