Why Rupert Murdoch is wrong

Rupert Murdoch wants people to pay to read his newspapers on the internet, but he’s completely wrong. Michael Wolff’s article for Vanity Fair explains a lot of the background to this, and explains a good deal of Murdoch’s thinking.

But there’s something else to all this that Wolff didn’t mention, something that I think matters.

Mr Murdoch believes that he is leading the charge. He thinks that the rest of the newspaper industry will come hurtling along beside him, erecting paywalls around their web sites as they go. He thinks that his problems are all about newspapers and the established newspaper industry.

What’s more, he seems to think that people will still want to read these same newspapers one way or another. And that’s where he’s wrong.

There is so much amazing stuff out there to read, watch and listen to – stuff that’s being created by interesting, talented people without the backing of global media corporations. I don’t just mean blogs (although some blogs fall into this category), and I don’t just mean what Murdoch and other media types might called “user generated content”. Some of it is generated by professionals. They’re just side-stepping the publishing establishment to do things in a different way.

That way is different because it’s lo-fi, low-cost, quick and simple. It accepts the internet for what it is, and exploits it accordingly. This is media that understands that readers have to be earned, that online publishing is as much conversation as story, that good content will be harvested by spammers and copied elsewhere, that links and feeds and data all matter as much as facts, and that the voices of individuals are more than a match for the voices of nameless leader columns.

I think that Murdoch has no real understanding of what’s online beyond the world of newspaper web sites, and perhaps the handful of blogs that he’s encountered.

I very much doubt that he has sat down for days at a time, exploring and enjoying the wealth of astonishing stuff that real people are creating because they can, and because they love to.

A few examples:

This might sound obvious to you and me, but I don’t think Rupert Murdoch has grasped this. I’m not expecting him to have seen those particular sites I give as examples, but I think that if he was more aware of the nature of online publishing, of the way is it can be so different from newspapers and yet still so successful, perhaps he might not have decided to put up the paywall.

Behind it, the content he’s paid so much to produce will wither away. The audience won’t rush back to the corner shop to buy a paper copy, as Wolff suggests Murdoch expects. Instead they’ll go elsewhere on the internet, following the links their friends share with them, to the stuff that’s innovative and fun. And mostly (but not always) free.

That stuff won’t necessarily be Murdoch’s competitors in newspapers, either. He thinks they are the only competition. He’s wrong about that too.

In one of his Carpool interviews, Llewellyn talks to Jemima Kiss from The Guardian. She says today’s newspapers are “bloated”, and she’s right.

Filed under: work
(5th October, 2009)