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Tech and Journalism | Wednesday, November 11th, 2009, 2:08 am

Paywalls: It’s all or nothing

In an interesting interview, Rupert Murdoch speaks on the decision to put all News Corp. Web sites behind paywalls.

“Well they shouldn’t have had it free all the time,” Murdoch says, speaking of Internet news readers. “I think we’ve been asleep. It costs us a lot of money to put together good newspapers and good content.”

Pejorative remarks about Murdoch’s holding’s aside, he’s obviously right — it costs a lot of money for good reporting. The Maine Campus is a tiny newspaper in comparison to a national standard bearer like The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and we still have a very large budget. It costs unbelieveable amounts to send writers and photographers to dangerous places — the cost of insurance, travel, top-notch equipment and, of course, enough of a paycheck to make it worth their while.

The problem, though, is that there are few newspapers that provide that sort of reporting. The Times and the Journal are the two most notable; The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post offer some international reporting, but not on the same scale. Most small newspapers — and oftentimes the bigger ones, too — get their international reporting exclusively from wire services, specifically The Associated Press.

In fact, it isn’t even about international reporting. In the age of scrim and save, newspapers that once had national bureaus are cutting them or turning them over to interns. Many local newspapers fill a good 50 percent, minimum, with wire copy. Some papers even use the wire for local coverage. Just to be clear: I don’t mean to excoriate the AP. That post will come at a later date.

The point is, papers that rely heavily on the use of wire content will not be able to survive behind a paywall. You can’t charge readers for content that isn’t 100 percent yours. It’s too easy to search Google for a topic and find a free site to go to with the exact same story.

The only way it will work is if all newspapers band together and agree to construct one giant paywall, which of course isn’t going to happen. Short of that, the only papers for which a paywall is feasible are the truly unique papers: the ones with less than 1 percent of their content from wire sources. The other 999,998 newspapers will have to find some other way to survive.

There will be much, much more to come on this.

P.S. Does anybody else think Murdoch is going to die any second now?

William P. Davis is editor of MaineMedia and a founding editor of the Observer.

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