We Think Rupert Murdoch's Bluffing on His Pay-Wall Pledge

Rupert Murdoch promises his News Corp. publications will charge for content by next year. Steven Brill swears he has hundreds of newspapers signed up to do likewise. Who wants to be the first to follow these sharks into the pool?

Today in the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz writes that there's an "emerging consensus" that Murdoch and Brill are leading the way to the future, in which people pay to read news on the Web. The only trouble: Whichever publishers are first to charge for content will be first to see their Web traffic drop — like 90% — if they wall off everything to just subscribers. Especially if their competitors don't also erect their own paywalls. It could be catastrophic for smaller brands who wall off their content while everyone stays free.

Antitrust law prohibits the dying newspaper industry from coordinating pricing, so publishers must trust one another's public pronouncements on payment policies. Right now that means taking Murdoch and Brill at their word, a prospect that should send chills up publishers' spines. We'll be no more surprised when Murdoch reverses himself on this than we were when he broke his promises to the Bancroft family after taking over their Wall Street Journal.