Since buying the Wall Street Journal shortly before the nadir of newspapers, Rupert Murdoch has made a professional habit of thumbing his nose at digital evangelists. Now, his vow to charge for every bit and byte of online content produced by News Corp. comes as a declaration of war against the idea that the only way to go online is "free."

Will the growing murmurs and grumbles among newsgathering operations about charging for content--a strategy that's tried and failed before--crescendo into action?

As expected, Jeff Jarvis--one of the most strident newspaper bashers--thinks not:

  • Only the Wall Street Journal Could Get Away With This, he says in the Guardian (the best single source on this debate). "For most, pinning hopes for the survival of news on charging for it is not only futile but possibly suicidal....Publishers who fool themselves into thinking pay will save the day only further forestall the innovation and experimentation that is the only possible path to success online." On Twitter, Jarvis had an even punchier take: "Hmm. Murdoch doesn't use the internet. He bought MySpace. I worked for his internet disaster, Delphi. Yes, let's all follow him."
But some more sympathetic media pundits believe Murdoch may be cannier than he seems.
  • Part Two Is Waging War on Free Content, says Matt Wells, also in the Guardian. "The elephant in the (British) room is the BBC - which is, in effect, the biggest free news website in the world. In a world where everyone is taking a gamble, one thing is certain: a new round of Murdoch-led lobbying to clip the BBC's online wings."
  • Murdoch Knows Something We Don't, says Ben Parr at Mashable. "Murdoch must see something encouraging at the WSJ, because he wouldn't be going with this plan if he didn't think they could replicate that model without losing significant readership."
But with a $3 billion write-down on the newspaper operations, and little recovery in sight, Murdoch's gutsiness may also be a last stand. As Bobbie Johnson writes, the debate between free-news pundits and those who think readers should pay is coming to a head, and it's not looking good for Murdoch:

Proponents of free news say it is impossible to succeed by charging readers when there are so many competing sources of information prepared to give their services to readers for nothing, echoing the words of the famous futurist Stewart Brand, who said "information wants to be free".

So far at least, history is one their side.