The recent Economist (the paper version, dated 8/8), summarises the matter in its fabulously concise manner:
[RM] said he expected that all of his websites would charge users for access within a year, despite his previous commitment (...) News Corporation's boss was speaking as the company revealed a quarterly loss, caused in part by its struggling MySpace social-networking site. The media mogul has sparked an intense debate about ending free access to online news content; many observers remain sceptical that such plan will work.
The Guardian's (UK) superb media blogger Roy Greenslade has posted a comment with a compilation of international reactions to the news. Somewhat ironically (given his affiliation) he remains amongst the sceptics. He summarises the discussions : "
To echo Greenslade, would Murdoch, Alma & Sanoma be happy serving these smaller, kind of elite news audiences that pay services might create? Those who prefer to check out news online only are most likely not the core target segments that would want to pay for online services. Greenslade suspects, in fact, that if Murdoch's plan is not only a trick to stir up the market, he will look into combining on and offline subscription.
A broader question of public service, media and democracy: I seem to remember that a key part of the very mandate of public service is to inform. Public and scholarly memory tends to be short in these days of constant change in the media landscape, but remember: in the 1990s and early 2000s the Finnish commercial television channels have complained about the entertainment content produced by public service. As so much research in Europe indicates (re: Finland, Aslama, Hellman, Sauri 2004), in past public service has very much taken the role of filling in the gap in the expanding media markets. And, yet, a part of public service mission has traditionally been full service and universal access. A tough call.
I suppose the commercial operators are arguing that given the fee / public funding public service is not free. Needless to say, their tune is based on the idea of media content being as any product, and media policy being about industrial policy. They surely want to guarantee diverse news supply, but ultimately save their business.
Well, another option would be to take an opposite approach, a model of online quality or 'accountability' journalism as emerging in the U.S.: newspapers / news services as non-profits (see, e.g., the article by the Christian Science Monitor summarising the trend, and Leonard Downie's analysis in British Journalism Review). Finland has a tradition of press subsidies, anyhow, so some sort of model could be set up...
Utopian thinking aside, my point is, really: Murdoch's tune and other complaint choirs do not necessarily further and broaden the core content discussion about what news will and should be and who participate in the production and distribution. It's a little scary, since, as the Economist noted, the ultimate role of news is to inform, connect people, and enable political participation in democratic societies.