Rupert Murdoch may be leading the pack when it comes to charging for content, but he’s not dumb enough to go it alone. The News Corp. chief said recently that all of his publications will start charging for content within a year. And now it appears that he’s got plans to get other publications to go in with him. According to The Los Angeles Times, News Corp. execs have been meeting with major publishers to create a media consortium that collectively charges for articles across digital platforms. 

Why does Murdoch want help? Because his papers will take a nosedive in readership when he starts charging for content. One way to stave off the bleeding is to make sure that other news providers are siphoning their content behind a pay wall as well.

According to The Los Angeles Times, News Corp. has recently met with representatives from The New York Times Co., Washington Post Co., Hearst Corp. and Tribune Co. (who publishes the Los Angeles Times).

Alan D. Mutter, a former newspaper columnist and editor and
consultant on new media ventures, tells the paper:

“The reality is that unless a lot of people who produce news act in
unison to start charging for content, then individually they will

Why is that? Because as much as the advertising industry may be hurting right now, publishers need the dollars they get online. And while charging for subscriptions may bring in more revenue, the money lost when non-paying readers opt out of their content will be a big hit.

Internet ads account for just 12% of a newspaper’s revenue, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, but those numbers will drop even further when media audiences shrink. And that is something they are guaranteed to do when newspapers start charging for online access to articles.

The Financial Times, which charges for its content and has received a good deal of press for its business model lately, has only 117,000 worldwide readers. That’s up this year from 101,000 in 2007, but it is still a tiny reader base. Compared to The New York Times’ 227,000 readers in 2007, The Financial Times has far fewer readers — and much less influence with the greater online audience.

That’s not a problem for niche publications so much, but for general interest publications that are considering joining a paid consortium, it is problematic. At least if the major papers go in together on subscription fees they won’t be stuck watching behind a pay wall as some other free national publication steals their traffic and ad dollars.

Even if all major publishers agree to join a consortium, there’s still plenty of room for smaller, more nimble online operations to generate content and page views. But Murdoch is smart to get other big papers on his side when it comes to charging for content. Federal regulators might become a problem if newspapers set their prices together online, but if they are going to charge for content, they’re better off doing it together than separately.