So, after a few days break to honor a friend of mine, I’ve decided to get back at it. The big news lately is, rather unsurprisingly, Rupert Murdoch and News Corp are, in fact, trying to parlay current conditions in online news into a sweet exclusivity deal to index his material with the search engine that will get with his program. Now, I’m not alone in being rather outspoken about the absurdity of this, particularly if it involves paywalls on the material he wants to index. Being that it seems a forgone conclusion that Murdoch, and possibly others, will be taking this route in the near future, I thought I’d consider the matter a little more closely.
First is the notion that News Corp’s (or any major publisher’s) brand recognition is of the kind of value that makes a licensing deal worthwhile for any search engine is tenuous, at best. When you’re in a market as a physical print product running against three or four other like-minded print products, sure, you’re brand has serious value. But when pitted against a nearly infinite amount of material online, much of which with little to no direct geographic connection to your market, that same brand name loses quite a bit of its luster.
Let’s take the Wall Street Journal, for instance. Is it’s mere association with a search engine enough to bring in significant traffic? Well, no, not really. For one thing, the Journal isn’t of any use to the majority of Americans. Not being in the investor class (you know, the folks who have transformed our financial economy into a giant get-rich-quick ponzi scheme) the detailed financial information and analysis are just so much useless fodder. If you happen to be into that, and still have the resources, the Journal may be of use to you. But then, it would be regardless of which search engine it happened to be connected to, if any at all.
The New York Post is the other key print property in Murdoch’s domain, the American side of it, anyway. Will people follow it to another search engine? Again, probably not. The Post does produce some nice work on occasion, but news reporting in this day and age is, quite bluntly, of virtually no cash value. The New York Times has already tried an aggregation effort and a paywall effort. Both failed miserably. Why would this new scheme work? Well, it wouldn’t. And let’s not forget the licensing deal between Murdoch-owned MySpace and Google which has fallen so far off expectations as to safely be categorized a failure as well. Plus, it’s likely that deal played a significant role in MySpace’s falling behind in the hierarchy of social networking sites.
Thirdly, let’s look at the search engine in question that Murdoch hopes to use to leverage the market in his favor (at least the market he perceives to exist); Bing by Microsoft. First, let me say, I am no great fan of Microsoft. I switched to Apple years ago. Call me crazy, but when I spend thousands of dollars on computers and software, I would actually like them to work. Bing has been around for a little while now, but is making almost zero headway cutting into Google’s search dominance. And they’re actually giving people money to shop through Bing. Still nothing. At this point, Bing is nothing more than bluster and an extremely minor annoyance to Google. Will a deal like this help Bing? Not really because it simply doesn’t offer people any real reason to switch, as if people had some great necessity to use one or the other anyway. It’s not like you have to choose. Nobody’s stopping people from using both. Kind of undermines any particular value for exclusivity, doesn’t it?
So basically, Murdoch is selling exclusivity to content that has little or no online value to a search engine that has few, if any, regular devotees. And this is what passes for “game-changing” in publishing?
To me, this is yet another example that old-guard publishing simply doesn’t understand the reality of the situation. Brand recognition and allegiance has no meaning here. Exclusivity has no meaning here. Your news content has little if any direct monetary value here. All of the talk, hard-line stances and threats are so much pissing in the wind. He’s behaving as if he actually has some leverage and that pulling out of Google and switching to Bing will be more than a relatively minor blip before folks move on to someone they can find more easily.
But I say, go for it. Sequester that material in the fairytale land where people will actually pay for his stuff, where his brands still reign supreme, and a deal between News Corp and Microsoft is a major, earth-shaking event. The rest of us out here in the real world will just shrug, Google included, and move on to someone else more interesting who may actually have a vision of what can be accomplished in 2010, not stuck with a business model based on reminiscing about 1990.
Also, check this out. A while back, when the Audit Brueau of Circulation released some figures showing an average 10 % or so decline in newspaper circulation, I opined that the actual figures were likely far worse. Based on my previous experience with several companies, I knew better than to take industry produced circulation figures at face value. Especially auditing bureau stats, which are completly artificial and meaningless. Apparently, some other folks have caught on to this, in particular to alterations in ABC’s standards that allow nespapers to double-count print and electronic readership and counting someone who pays as little as a penny for a copy as paid circulation. I understand why publishing companies are having such a difficult time this day and age; it’s a lot harder to pull the wool over people’s eyes with self-produced stats set up to look like legitimately independent reports. If only they would translate that ability to call B.S. to real journalism, then they might finally be on to something.