It’s fair to say that Rupert Murdoch’s recent “conversion” to digital media has caused a fair bit of consternation among other media owners, because it’s certain that News Corp’s essential resignation from the digital sector (for practical purposes) in the late 1990s left the field a lot more open than it would otherwise have been. If News Corp is planning a major return to the digital table, it’s going to make things more difficult for the rest of us.
Which makes Rupert Murdoch’s speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington on April 13, 2005. It’s a pretty incredible document. My summary of it would be: Murdoch is getting far better advice about digital media than he was, and he’s moved a long way, but he’s still a figure who thinks about control in an inappropriate way for this new age.
Nonetheless, Murdoch claims to understand that the control issue has changed:
I come to this discussion not as an expert with all the answers, but as someone searching for answers to an emerging medium that is not my native language. Like many of you in this room, I’m a digital immigrant. I wasn’t weaned on the web, nor coddled on a computer. Instead, I grew up in a highly centralized world where news and information were tightly controlled by a few editors, who deemed to tell us what we could and should know. My two young daughters, on the other hand, will be digital natives. They’ll never know a world without ubiquitous broadband internet access.
He goes on to say:
[Younger users] want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it. They want to question, to probe, to offer a different angle. Think about how blogs and message boards revealed that Kryptonite bicycle locks were vulnerable to a Bic pen. Or the Swiftboat incident. Or the swift departure of Dan Rather from CBS. One commentator, Jeff Jarvis, puts it this way: give the people control of media, they will use it. Don’t give people control of media, and you will lose them.
But I think Murdoch begins to lose the plot when he makes assertions like this:
We in this room – newspaper editors and journalists – are uniquely positioned to deliver that news. We have the experience, the brands, the resources, and the know-how to get it done. We have unique content to differentiate ourselves in a world where news is becoming increasingly commoditized. And most importantly, we have a great new partner to help us reach this new consumer — the Internet.
He also goes on to say:
Today, to the extent anyone is a destination, it’s the internet portals: the Yahoos, Googles, and MSNs. I just saw a report that showed Google News’s traffic increased 90 percent over the past year while the New York Times’ excellent website traffic decreased 23 percent. The challenge for us – for each of us in this room – is to create an internet presence that is compelling enough for users to make us their home page. Just as people traditionally started their day with coffee and the newspaper, in the future, our hope should be that for those who start their day online, it will be with coffee and our website.
To do this, though, we have to refashion what our web presence is. It can’t just be what it too often is today: a bland repurposing of our print content. Instead, it will need to offer compelling and relevant content. Deep, deep local news. Relevant national and international news. Commentary and Debate. Gossip and humor.
Oh the agony in those words to the extent anyone is a destination! There’s a world of old media pain in that statement. But really Murdoch is talking about trying to make his websites “destinations”, places which people go to instead of other places, where success is linked to “stickiness” and “time on site” and the like.
To me, this is a bit of a 1998 view of the world. It’s a portal view. It says nothing about how News Corp publications will be “part of the Web,” how they will respond to other content providers. It’s still, in many ways, a “closed” content model. Murdoch does talk about “supplementing” News Corp coverage with blog content, but you don’t get the sense he really means it.
Which isn’t to say this view of the world is wrong, or that News Corp hasn’t moved a huge distance with this speech. It has. But the speech still feels like the words of someone catching up. Catching up fast, but still catching up. When Murdoch does something genuinely innovative and risky online – like he did with satellite television in the UK or network television in the US – that’s the time we’ll really have to start worrying. And judging by his speech, I think he’s already moving towards a vision of what that “something risky” might be: a news site with full multimedia, aimed at a broadband audience and intended as a “destination,” something which combines all News Corp’s assets into a single digital gateway. In other words, a portal. In other words, AOL.