A Serious Inability to Evolve

Rupert Murdoch threw his annual anti-Google hissy fit this past April, when he screamed to anyone who would listen that Google is stealing his content. As usual, it was timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the American Society of News Editors (ASNE). In an interview with Marvin Kalb at the National Press Club, just ahead of the ASNE shindig, Murdoch once again let loose on Google (and threw Microsoft in there too for good measure).

Excuse me while I yawn. The idea that search engines are stealing content is, of course, completely ridiculous and not even remotely true. Yet Murdoch continued to display his total ignorance of how Google News works when he suggested he would be very happy if Google would simply publish his headlines and a sentence or two. It makes me wonder if Murdoch ever actually looked at Google News because this is exactly how it works.

At the beginning of April, I read a blog post called "The Collapse of Complex Business Models" by New York University professor Clay Shirky. It's a wonderful piece, and I encourage you to read the whole (complex) thing. The gist of it is that large systems with inbuilt complex bureaucracies have a hard time changing and simplifying. Applied to the media, old media has been publishing a certain way for more than 150 years. It's extremely difficult for them simply to stop doing what they know and change the system, even if it's for the better.

Murdoch is a perfect example of this. Even as he tries to embrace the online world, understanding on some level that he must to survive, he continues to cling to old ways of running
the news business.

He went on to tell Kalb he believed people would start paying for online news content if they had nowhere else to go. This, of course, suggests that all media will present a united front on the matter, an unfounded (and unlikely) conclusion.

In fact, in spite of Murdoch's firm assertions to the contrary, there is no one right way to deliver content online. First of all, for the most part, people don't want to read one publication cover to cover anymore. They want to read the articles that matter to them no matter who produces them. Secondly, there will be no united front. Some papers will charge. Some will try free. Some will mix a combination of free and fee.

The ones that will probably be most successful are those that have the ability to simplify the content production process, to move from an industrialized production process to a more streamlined online process without a big building, printing presses, and trucks. In the technology world, we see online publications such as TechCrunch and Mashable finding success with solid reporting because they started as online publications. They aren't trying to be something they're not. The problem companies such as News Corp. face is that they must continue to produce news in the 20th-century fashion while trying to adapt to newer 21st-century models. It's not an easy line to walk even if Murdoch had a grip on how the newer paradigm functions, which he clearly doesn't.

If Murdoch does as he says and blocks his content from Google and Microsoft, he is damning his properties to obscurity. Not only will today's readers not pay for most of his content (The Wall Street Journal being a notable exception), the readers who don't specifically go to his web properties won't even know his content exists.

Worst of all is that Murdoch doesn't understand today's readers who can find the day's news from all over the world and visit sites for publications they might never have read because they turn up in search results. This continued refrain that Microsoft and Google are stealing his content by displaying a headline and a couple of sentences is getting tiresome. But he and his sons continue to sing the old chestnut until we are all ready to scream and run for the exits.

While Murdoch may be entertaining to a certain degree, and he certainly offers much fodder for a columnist like me, his act is getting old, much like his approach to the news business. By continually blaming search engines for his troubles and accusing aggregators of stealing instead of helping drive traffic to his sites, he shows a serious inability to evolve, and like any species that can't evolve, his business model is likely to fade slowly into history.