Here comes the Sun

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Well, we find out that either the force wasn’t really unstoppable or the object wasn’t really unmovable.

And so, the News International empire is about to collide with the self-appointed monarchy of the internet, Google. It’s tempting to paint this as a battle of good vs evil, and more than a few Star Wars analogies have been thrown around already. But really it’s not that simple, of course. More like the battle of the presumed innocent and the presumed guilty.

The delicate subtext to much of this discussion isn’t easy to miss. Protest as they may that Murdoch is a crazy out-of-touch Luddite, there’s an unmistakable absence amongst his detractors of either certainty that he will fail, or explanation of why he should. As per usual, Andrew Orlowski provides one of the most insightful takes on the whole subject and an explanation for the sudden desire for aggressive action:

Really it’s a cultural divide. The web divisions at media companies – who can speak fluent “clayshirky”, quote from Freakonomics and are invariably Twittering at a New Media conference – haven’t brought home the goods; media company boards and shareholders now see them more as part of the problem than as the solution.

The reality is that no one really knows what on earth will happen in this showdown, and not many media companies are ready to come out and say that they won’t jump on the band wagon if Murdoch does somehow manage to get it rolling.

And of course we’ll have fun watching. It’s a good fight. No one in their right mind writes off the man who has somehow convinced almost 10 million people in the UK to give him over £20 a month to watch TV which is (more or less) also available free. And few will write off Google, because they’re the only people who’ve so far managed to make big money from advertising  on the web.

The freetards taste victory, but also fear the passing of the utopian summer we’ve all been having. I imagine Chris Andersen is busy trying to work out how he’ll eat all the words in his boring books if the crazy Australian manages to make it fly. Microsoft presumably can’t imagine their luck: there’s a battle going on, and they’re not the villains for once – although they may be crazy if they chose to pay Murdoch to list his content.

But as the debate rages in media offices all over country, there seem a few rather critical truths which are not being discussed:

  • Search engine inertia – The thought that consumers will change engine in response to the content that is available gives the impression that most users understand the distinction between search engines and what they do (or even search engines and browsers). This has not been my experience in user testing. This isn’t a point about Google  being so easy and fast that people are loyal to it. This is a point about users thinking Google is the web. Long-learned habits will take a long time to break. Clearly if Murdoch got almost all media outlets to follow him (not inconceivable), the absence of such results would drive users on, but as long as ‘Tiger woods crash’ returns hundreds of results, migration is likely to be slow.
  • The BBC – In the UK, the BBC – also committed to open, free access – makes any such anti-Google cartel a paper tiger.
  • Prisoner’s dilemma – the more media outlets are in the Murdoch alliance, the more tempting it will be to leave it.
  • Cover price – The cover price of newspapers do not make them commercially viable. The value for media owners is still the value of advertising, not cover price. So unless we are planning on driving people away from the web, back to newsprint, subscription prices are going to have to be way higher than offline pricing, since internet advertising doesn’t work. Numerous free-paper wars have shown how advertising in print can deliver profits. And, of course, most newspapers operate an at-least partially free model: what percentage, for example, of The Times, are given away for free? Conversely, what would the cover price on the Sun have to be if it carried no advertising? £1? £2? Would it be any more commercially viable than the Sun on the web with a paywall?
  • Purchase mechanic – It’s an obvious point but customers pay for newspapers with small change in an ad hoc arrangement. And the decision to purchase is often driven by the front page headline or image. Neither of these techniques exists online.
  • The newspaper is not just about news and sport (or opinion) – much of the content of the Sun is already monetized online (Page 3, Bingo); further considerable portions are being monetized very effectively online, just not by News International (classifieds, reader offers etc).
  • The print title is a social object – No I don’t mean in the tree-hugging, twitter-will-save-the-world way. Average readership of a national newspaper is 2-3 people. Being social, offline, supports advertising but not cover price revenue. Interestingly, most media owners love secondary reading, not seeing it a cannibalization of readership. Again, Murdoch risks damaging precisely this aspect of newspaper consumption. And, newspapers are social in another way too. Part of the attraction of mass media is that they can form topics for discussion in social groups. Online has actually been very efficient at enabling this. Paywall’s are very bad at encouraging this sort of behavior. Like music licensing, once I’ve paid for online content, I feel I should be able to share it, not with the whole web, but certainly with my immediate networks.
  • Subscriptions are not rare – The failure of music subscription services and of registration / pay-walling in general are taken (by the ‘free’ lobby) to mean that consumers won’t pay for things by subscription . In fact consumers sign up to all sorts of licence / subscription deals: for their Sky packages, for their broadband, for their mobile phones, for their travel cards, for football seats. The barrier to subscriptions is not a general resistance but the ability to demonstrate value.
  • Online all content is micro-content – At the point at which the consumer is going to be asked to part with cash, they are about to interact not with the entire contents of a newspaper, but with a particular piece of content (whether they’re searching on Bing, on Google, or on the Sun’s own website). Pricing, therefore needs to be proportionate.

So what it adds up to is the need to ask for the customer to pay more, for less, in a less convenient medium, in a way that they probably don’t know how to navigate.

But it’s not a one way lesson. Whilst Murdoch’s move creates uncertainty, the key lesson for the free lobby is that the content producers are being squeezed out of existence. Is this obvious? I think it is but it never seems to be admitted to by those hawking that ‘information wants to be free’. Or does information also ‘want’ to be of a high quality and across a wide variety of topics? An older and more certain cliche comes to mind: ‘you get what you pay for’.

Today newspaper websites are seen as a marketing tool rather than purely a delivery channel. The new marketplace means online papers will have to be commercially viable in their own right. With no indication of an acceptable online advertising model; we are still awaiting the revolution which does in fact come at the end of Shirky’s argument. Will we end up with free content? undoubtedly. Will it be any good?  Will Rupert Murdoch own it? We’ll have to wait and see.