This week in media musings: Murdoch’s game of chicken, and a lesson in process journalism
No time for much of an intro — we’ve got way too much to get to this week. (As always, a look at what I’m doing is here.)
— There’s no question what — or who — is the biggest story in future-of-journalism talk this week: Rupert Murdoch. After months of talking around it, he finally made a splash by telling an Australian interviewer he plans to remove all of News Corp.’s sites’ content from Google’s search index. (He also said he thinks the fair-use doctrine should be overturned and threatened to sue the BBC for copyright violation.) Almost immediately, he got a vote of confidence from another billionaire media mogul — Mark Cuban, who argued that whereas Twitter and Facebook are growing platforms news orgs can use to their advantage, Google is a competing news source whose time is slipping past. “Having to search for and find news in search engines is so 2008,” he said.
Well, this just about set the new-media folks’ hair on fire. Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow guessed that Murdoch plans to exclusively put his content on an (inferior) competing search engine, a scheme he called “a crazed, Moby-Dick dumbshow against the Internet.” (Social media guru Jason Calacanis loves this idea, by the way.) Newser founder (and Murdoch biographer) Michael Wolff said Murdoch’s plan has its own curious but internally consistent logic, but he doesn’t have even the most basic know-how of how to build an online news business. The Australian site Crikey! and Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan tried to not-so-gently explain to Murdoch how Google and Google News work.
Bill Tancer and Sullivan used numbers to show why Murdoch’s plan won’t work, and The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum countered with numbers of his own to show that not much of News Corp.’s revenue comes from visitors sent through Google.
I’m with Sullivan and Doctorow on this one: Any plan by Murdoch to erect a paywall, freeze out Google and offer content exclusively through a lesser search engine is doomed to fail, simply because his publications’ content don’t have enough value to draw people away from Google. He’s basing these ideas off of the success of the Wall Street Journal, but the Journal should be treated as an exception, not the rule. It offers a highly specialized form of information, and many of its subscribers are able to get the cost reimbursed on expense accounts. The work of the rest of his publications, frankly, can be replaced by tons of free news sites, dropping their value to virtually zero. Murdoch’s operating as if the web is still his own little media playground, ruled by scarcity. Instead, it’s ruled by abundance, and that causes the value of any one online publication to tank, even if they’re as large as Murdoch’s.
Still, I think a colossal failure of this kind by Murdoch would be good for journalism in the long run, because it would a long way toward disabusing publishers of the notion that people will pay for their easily replicated content on the web. And let’s face it: If Rupert Murdoch, with the most resources of any traditional-media publisher in the world, can’t succeed charging for content, your 50,000-circulation paper probably can’t either.
— A fascinating discussion was spurred last week by The New York Times’ publication of a story on a patch of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean. This was the highest-profile effort yet by Spot.Us, an initiative by David Cohn that allows reporters to make pitches for stories they’d like to do and raise money online through what’s commonly called “crowdfunding.” In this case, Lindsey Hoshaw raised $10,000 to spend a month at the garbage patch, producing a blog and an article in the Times.
The Times article was not outstanding. Not bad, to be sure — but pretty much your garden-variety, cover-your-bases Times feature. When the Columbia Journalism Review’s Megan Garber pointed this out, things got interesting. Cohn defends Hoshaw and Spot.Us in the comments, Garber responds, others chip in, and we have a whole (somewhat tedious, but still interesting to journalism nerds like me) conversation about whose fault a lackluster story is (probably mostly the Times) and whether Garber’s piece is an indictment of Spot.Us (it wasn’t, though the subhead makes it sound that way).
Hoshaw wrote her own response, concluding that “people want to feel connected to the stories they’re reading and the people who write them.” But the two most insightful takes on the situation come from Mathew Ingram, Jason Fry and Mike Masnick, who note that the real story here is that with all other things being equal (like, say, the author, the reporting and the subject matter), a personal blog offered a fuller, richer, more engaging picture of a story than an article in the venerable New York Times. That says a lot about the actual capacities of journalism in traditional outlets versus blogging.
And why was the Times’ story worse? Because it’s so limited by the strictures and traditions of establishment journalism. As Fry wrote, “you get the feeling that the Paper of Record took an interesting square peg of a story and made it fit into a rather dull round hole.” And the Times does that because, to lean on Masnick here, focusing on the product over the process has been the way it’s always done things. If we ever needed a case study in the advantages of process over product journalism, this is it.
— We got two thoughtful pieces on search and authority this week: First, Thomas Baekdal wrote about how much more influential people we know are in our purchasing decisions than impersonal general traffic and brand recognition, then connected it to the idea of personalized search streams through social media connections. Then, Clay Shirky wrote some preliminary thoughts on “algorithmic authority” — the idea that we’re actually willing to trust impersonal machines to find things and help make decisions for us, apart from any human explicitly lending authority to them. I’m still trying to figure out how to square these two ideas that seem contradictory at first, but I think both of them should play a big role in the future of search.
— While most online advertising is struggling to find a sweet spot, ads associated with news sites’ videos are booming, The New York Times notes. I had found anecdotally that most news orgs’ video efforts had been a ton of work for a small amount of revenue, so this is a pleasant surprise to me.
— Longtime New Yorker writer Ken Auletta’s new book “Googled: The End of the World As We Know It” dropped earlier this month, and this week he offered a little treat: The book’s original last chapter of media maxims that Auletta learned from Google, cut by Auletta because it didn’t fit with the rest of the book. Very Jeff Jarvis-esque. Good stuff.
— Sports Illustrated’s (SI.com, if you want to get technical) national college football writer, Stewart Mandel, has a look at Twitter and YouTube’s effect on the college football universe. He finds — not surprisingly — that social media and the increasing ease of user-produced content has had the same effect there that it’s having in every other of life: Democratizing analysis and opening up the conversation to a much broader group of people.
— Finally, if you’re wondering how to dive in a little deeper with this whole journalism-and-new-media stuff, you could do a lot worse than this list of 50 journalism blogs. It covers the bases quite well.
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