Russians and Rupert Murdoch

Last week, we heard that Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev had bought The Independent for just a token £1. This is not long after he nabbed the Evening Standard for the same amount.

Both papers had, of course, been making losses for years – and, by buying them, he is also assuming their future liabilities. Brave man.

I have heard tales (perhaps fabricated, perhaps not) of Russians also randomly popping up in other boardrooms of newspapers, and journalists on these papers are a little bit unsure of what to make about such shadowy presences.

Could this be an infiltration of the free British press by the Russians, on a massive scale? Somehow, I rather suspect such fears are exagerated.

Then today, in an unrelated media story, I discovered that Rupert Murdoch is finally going to roll out his much-vaunted plans to make people pay for media content at The Times. This will start from June.

Mr Murdoch, let’s not forget, is one of the most successful businessmen of the 21st century. Had anyone else started branding this idea about, they might have been laughed out of the boardroom. But Murdoch understands the media industry like few people in the world do, and he has consistently defied his critics by taking the initiative and, against all odds, making it work.

As I said at the time, if Rupert Murdoch is about to charge people for online content (and, let’s face it, The Times isn’t quite the Financial Times or The Economist, two publications that can get away with charging for content), then this means something.

So there we have it. The future of the media in a nutshell – and something I have long believed will happen.

The British media will not die. The last newspaper will not, as some half-jokingly suggest, be laid down in 2020.

No.

What will happen to the world’s ailing press is that either rich benefactors will come along and snatch them up, and then use their own fortunes to keep them going. Which, incidentally, is what happened with many of the early papers.

Or, alternatively, newspapers will head down the Rupert Murdoch route, and charge for their online content, and may even make a success of things.

There are good and bad points to both of these possibilities, but in my mind both solutions are infinitely more attractive than the wholescale collapse of the free press.

On the first point, there is the inherent danger of corrupting stories for the benefactor’s own self-interest. After all, look at how Conrad Black regularly meddled in the editorial direction of The Telegraph. Staff, readers and occasionally press complaints commissions should hold readers to account.

On the second point, I believe that Murdoch’s strategy of charging readers for content is going to work. Why else would he do it? And it will encourage others to do the same. From my point of view, this is a good thing. Some may argue that it reduces access to information, but I hope that it could improve the quality of this information. After all, what is the point of a journalist other than to go beyond currently-reported knowledge?

But here in lies the danger to the scheme. Media professionals must stop whinging about the decline of their industry, and they must stop cutting corners. They must value quality, timely and accurate reporting above all else. Then they might survive.

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