Free vs. fettered news: The battle lines form

In Stephen King's novel The Stand, when the apocalypse arrives, the forces of good gather in Boulder while the hosts of evil flock to Las Vegas. In real life, in the midst of apocalyptic times for the media industry, the proponents of paid content are massing under the banners of Rupert Murdoch and Microsoft, (MSFT) while those who think the news ought to be free and ubiquitous can rally behind the BBC and Google (GOOG).

Murdoch, as you may have read here or here or here or here, is talking to Microsoft about a deal under which News Corp. (NWS) would withdraw its news sites' pages from Google's search listing while keeping them available through Bing, Microsoft's search engine, in return for unspecified millions. It's a mark of how fed up the newspaper industry is that other publishers are already making similar noises: Executives from MediaNews Group and A.H. Belo Corp. (AHC) now say they're also considering a Google block as a means of bolstering the pay walls they mean to implement. No word yet on whether Microsoft might dangle some cash to coax them along.

A Google boycott could be devastatingly effective -- and provide a huge boost for Bing -- if enough publishers can be corralled into participating. But it could fizzle badly if enough follow the lead of the BBC, which has made it clear it has no plans to restrict the distribution of its content in any way, including by charging for it. On Tuesday, BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons reiterated the state-supported broadcaster's "commitment to universal access to free news online" -- exactly the sort of regime that Murdoch and his allies are trying to overturn with their pay-wall schemes.

For the BBC to be leading the opposition must be especially galling to Murdoch, to whom the broadcaster epitomizes all that's wrong with the current media ecosystem. Murdoch recently mused publicly about suing the BBC for publishing news "stolen from the newspaper" on its websites. His son and heir apparent, James Murdoch, has accused the corporation of using public subsidies to smother free enterprise in the media industry.

But pointed words won't decide this struggle. Consumers will. As Peter Cohan, a columnist for DailyFinance and president of Peter S. Cohan Associates notes, Google (and the BBC) are the ones catering to the needs of consumers here, while Microsoft and News Corp. seem obsessed simply with getting a bigger piece of Google's pie. But, as Gawker points out, the offerings on Google News are plenty rich enough to keep consumers satisfied even if News Corp. (and MediaNews and Belo) take their toys and go home. And it only takes a few BBCs to ensure that continues to be the case.

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