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Why Murdoch Will Come to His Senses and Leave Stuff on Google

November 10, 2009

While charging for content has some merits that the new media elite refuse to acknowledge, everyone should balk at Rupert Murdoch’s suggestion yesterday that he might pull his newspapers from Google searches.

Luckily, I don’t think he’ll go through with it. Although he seems to have surrounded himself with a lot of old, curmudgeony newspapermen and lawyers who don’t understand the opportunities of the Web — or fair use for that matter — Murdoch is ultimately too smart a businessman to let this happen. My guess is that it’s just bluster in the hopes Google will make some concessions to newspapers for the their content (which it won’t).

As much as I abhor his politics, and the assault on democracy his FoxNews carries out everyday, Murdoch has always been a stalwart for the importance of newspapers in our society. He’s even taken big hits financially to keep them going. And if you don’t believe new media and bloggers can completely fill the void that will be left in our local communities after newspapers fold — and count me among those who feel that way — then you should admire him for this fact alone.

Consider what happened in 1982 in Boston. (Seeing as I wasn’t alive then, I know this story from a former editor and friend, David Rosenbaum). The Boston Herald was in danger of closing, and Murdoch swooped down at the last minute to keep Boston a two newspaper town. Granted, Murdoch, shrewd as hell, laid off tons of people and bought the paper for peanuts. But over the long run, he might have saved more jobs than he eliminated (including DR’s), and provided balance to the Globe across town.

But even giving him his due, Murdoch shouldn’t explore this no-Google idea. The effects would be devastating. Hitwise already has estimated that the WSJ would see a 25 percent drop in traffic. The web statistics firm also noted that “44 percent of visitors coming from Google are ‘new’ users who haven’t visited the domain in the last 30 days.” Given the short-sighted, quarter-to-quarter way in which newspapers are run, such a drop wouldn’t just cause a “tough month” where you fail to sell your available inventory; we’re probably talking people’s jobs.

The stories and posts about Murdoch’s comments on Google this week keep coupling this issue with paywalls, and that’s wrong. They’re completely different animals. As it becomes even more clear that online advertising can’t provide the monetary support to support the journalistic resources these institutions need to influence our society, then many of us will have to decide how much we really value that type of content creation.

I’m cynical. I don’t think the majority of the web populace cares enough to pay, which would make the people like me (in the minority) who are willing to pay shoulder more of the burden. Traditional journalism will become a high-end commodity for the few. In simple terms, that means if they cannot get a huge swath of people to pay, say, $25 a year, then a small group of us will pay much more and the content will be longer, specialized and investigative.

(By the way, the only reason the Journal has had success with a paywall could be because so many people will expense the subscription for business purposes, so it’s still something that’s unproven on a macro scale for the industry, but that’s a whole other post.)

As it concerns Google, like it or not, it’s the card catalog for the world. It’s where people turn not just to find where they want to go out to eat or to find which site can offer the cheapest plane ticket, it’s where people do research and find critical information. While much of the discovery process for new information is moving to social technologies instead of search, the two ultimately work in tandem.

Before information can be shared on a social network, someone has to find it first. And often, that mechanism is Google. Simply put, if the WSJ doesn’t show up on Google, it would be a huge loss for the paper and all the people on Web trying to find the best information.

But it will be pure business reasons that prevents Murdoch from going through with such an action. People on the sales sides of these organizations will make it clear: If you want people to pay, you should at least index the articles on Google and use it as a way to drive leads to your subscription services.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. David Rosenbaum permalink
    November 10, 2009 7:15 pm

    Refreshing to read such a clear, considered analysis.

  2. November 10, 2009 7:23 pm

    I wish we would all just encourage Murdoch to just paywall everything so we get this stupid idea over with. The internets know it will not be successful, so we should be encouraging him to put up his paywalls. Lets bust this sooner rather than later.

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