News Corp playing the subscription game with gusto – but, so far, alone

Back in May, Rupert Murdoch told investment analysts he would use a press conference “in about three to four weeks” to announce “an innovative subscription model” together with “a number of publishers, device makers and technology companies”.

The press conference never came. But that doesn’t mean News Corp (NSDQ: NWS) isn’t convinced enough of the chances online content subscriptions can work to make them a central pillar of its own business all by itself.

Photo by AMagill on Flickr. Some rights reserved

About the same time, News Corp should have unveiled the subscription project, it made an alternative announcement… it acquired the IP to the Skiff e-reader platform…

… And it took a stake in Journalism Online, the Steve Brill-Gordon Crovitz startup helping newspapers charge online. At the same time, John Houseman was appointed as president of News Corp’s digital journalism initiative, responsible for driving and managing new business efforts in “premium digital journalism”.

The Times and Sunday Times newspapers websites relaunched and have become the first News Corp consumer titles to start charging. (News Corp acquired one of the most famed news subscription offerings in as part of Dow Jones and is expanding paid access to multiple devices.)

iPad editions debuted for The Times (£9.99 a month) and The Australian, (AUS$4.99 a month) through iTunes in-app payments, each making a big splash initially and satisfying Murdoch’s big belief in mobility. The Times app has had some rocky moments with those in-app payments, with an unknown number of subs getting free months as a result.

Hulu, in which News Corp has a stake together with Disney (NYSE: DIS) and NBC Universal (NYSE: GE), also launched its long-expected $9.99-a-month premium service for online, iOS and consoles.

Fox Mobile offered up Bitbop, an unrelated subscription effort compared to Hulu for mobile.

BSkyB (NYSE: BSY) took its iPhone TV app on to iPad, but at a premium – the same price as a satellite subscription.

News Corp’s UK newspapers have been blocking the Meltwater search crawler for not paying one of two new licenses required for the privilege.

And now MySpace Music is apparently considering adding a subscription music service.

There was no industry-wide consensus working together with News Corp, nor even any big joined-up News Corp-wide project apparent – no Times delivery bundled with a Sky TV subscription (as some folks speculated), for example. One partnership that News Corp is taking part in – Next Issue Media, often described as (what else) Hulu for magazines, finally appointed a chief executive but has yet to make any public progress toward an online subscription newsstand or advertising model.

But each of these developments reeks of “innovative subscription model”, just without the “number of publishers, device makers and technology companies” Murdoch described.

Murdoch’s suggestion did succeed in firing up a News Corp that already has ample experience building its own content businesses with continuous, multiple income streams. BSkyB is one of the most successful pay-TV businesses in the world, with average annual revenue per customer now at £503 ($769) a year, and Fox is well used to getting subscription revenue, albeit in the form of license fees from cable operators.

There’s little which links together any of these initiatives as far as consumers are concerned, and the model is often delivered in executed in different ways across the corporation’s many distinct media brands. But, inside News Corp, there’s an increasingly firm belief it can go on validating the recurring paid content model in its own image.