This week has been dominated by Rupert Murdoch’s interview with Sky News, wherein he unabashedly claims that he’s being robbed from Google, Microsoft, Ask.com (and AgencySpy, though he never names us specifically). Whether you link back to one of the Wall Street Journal‘s stories or list it in your search results, you’re stealing. Murdoch’s pay wall system will reportedly fix all that, but in the mean time he’s OK with allowing Google et al to keep doing what they’re doing. There’s a logical reason for that; and we’ll debunk some of what he’s said.
Rupert’s Problem: People used to pay for newspapers so why shouldn’t they pay for online content?
Answer: this is an issue that first arose when television news (and before it, radio) gained prominence. Other than having to purchase a set, the content was free, so this is hardly a Web issue. Radio hosts would read the newspaper aloud on air, a practice that was still common through the 90s (if memory serves). It’s a scale problem that NewsCorp benefits from. Whether a blurb is taken or an entire story, the WSJ wins via exposure, prominence, story ownership and if the linkback is clicked, traffic. WSJ’s sales team can turn around and sell that impression, and all they had to do was publish. Thus, their ‘stolen content’ problem is simultaneously a self-propelled marketing vehicle that has elevated the Journal in recent years. The rule of human nature is to take free things and be wary of things that cost money — what if you don’t like it? With content you don’t get your money back, and hence you’re less likely to read a story you have to pay for than one you don’t. Proof: you’re reading a blog about the ins-and-outs of advertising written by a guy who knows jack-all about the industry.
Rupert’s Problem: There’s not enough advertising in all the world to support all the Web sites, hence saying clickbacks solve this problem is a falsehood.
Answer: As my dad used to say, “that sounds like a personal problem.” If your team isn’t savvy enough to develop products that advertisers want, you’re doing it wrong. You’re the Wall Street Journal. A paid model, especially one that asks people to pay for the print edition and online access forces readers out who either won’t pay or will be limited by the cost somehow. Let’s not forget that FOX operates on exactly the same model and it is the highest watched cable news network, ever. Nobody pays for it except sponsors.
Rubert’s Problem: Google, Ask.com, MSN.
Answer: Search engines are the digital newsstand of our world. Without them Web surfers would have to rely on their ability to guess URLs, and furthermore there would be no way to search for the news of the day. With so many titles, styles, ranges of coverage available, the market is more flooded than ever. The best way to gain prominence is to let Google put you on a pedestal. Where a newsstand differs is that it may not carry each and every title available, which exacerbates the point: SEO and Web prominence are part are parcel to the digital realm.
Rupert’s Problem: People are stealing!
Answer: Currently it’s possible to read any WSJ story by simply copying a headline and pasting it into Google. Presumably this is the best plan NewsCorp had for using SEO to its advantage and now it’s simultaneously hurting them. But when you’re looking through the same lenses you’ve used since dirt was invented, it would seem like you’re getting robbed blind. Any media company with a large infrastructure will see things this way and if we’ve learned anything about the business of media it’s that large companies with deep infrastructures have a harder time on the Web. You can’t have it both ways, and the pay-wall model will make things worse (65% of media professionals agree).
— Once content isn’t available anymore, WSJ and other NewsCorp pay-wall-blocked content will cease to be part of the broader conversation. Instead, a limited number of people will continue to use the service, but those who can’t get it will simply avoid it. It’s not good or bad, just reality.
— Erosion of the brand will follow as new bloggers come on and those who used to source NewsCorp change their habits.
— People will still steal the content, they just won’t link back to the WSJ.
Finally, I’d like to mention the first part of the interview when Murdoch says he’s been asleep on the issue and that people were happy to pay for news when it was printed. This is true. But people were also happy to let their family, friends, colleagues read the story as well. And since no one has ever made a friend buy his already-read newspaper, this argument loses weight. There are massive production costs associated with printing and delivering newspapers which simply fade away via digital. Certainly there are some equivalent costs with producing digital content. When you’re not born in the digital realm, as so many ad agencies have learned, it’s hard to transform to fit the construct of the new space. Spurning it is biting your nose to spite your face, which in Murdoch’s case will leave his company with a nasty scar.