The biggest jerk in the world award for today goes to this guy. Very rarely do I run across something that leaves me stunned, speechless and more than a little annoyed (usually, I just laugh at others’ stupidity) but I had to actually read this one twice, just to be sure that I hadn’t misunderstood. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Robert Thomson, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, no less. I would have assumed that someone who has earned the position he has at such a prestigious publication would have some semblance of sense (not to mention an appreciation for how unique his newspaper’s online position is within the industry). But I suppose not.
This diatribe was actually from earlier this year, April to be exact, but he has recently echoed some of the same sentiments (not to mention soundbites) at a conference in San Francisco about a month ago. So, without further adieu, I’ll dig into a few of his less-than-cogent points.
To begin, he comes right out of the gate calling people who aggregate content “parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet.” Interestingly, there is little mention of how many television news stations or newspapers routinely rewrite, repackage or redirect stories from smaller papers every day. Does that make them “pulp tapeworms in the intestines of newsprint?” Of course, no one in the newspaper industry seems to see the contradiction in complaining about online aggregation when they routinely engage in this much more direct form of intellectual theft. After all, you can’t provide a hyperlink to the original article on paper.
Thomson then goes on to say, “it’s certainly true that readers have been socialized — wrongly I believe — that much content should be free.” Well, who’s fault is that? Is it Google, who indexes and links to these stories or the newspaper industry itself who, largely, slapped most all of their work online for people to read for free? The only reason they’re complaining now is because they tried to replicate the ad supported model of print, putting little or no thought or effort into the issue along the way. They gave this stuff away for free because they saw no value in it other than as a backdrop to sell ads against. Now that online ad revenue can’t possibly live up to past print revenue, all of a sudden that same content they so blithely tossed out there has all this perceived value to them? Give me a break.
He finishes his point, “And there is no doubt that’s in the interest of aggregators like Google who have profited from that mistaken perception.” So, it’s not newspapers’ fault the content has no value, it’s Google’s fault. Actually, and oddly rather explicitly, what he’s saying here is, “we couldn’t figure out how to make money giving this stuff away for free, but Google did. Bastards.” Jealousy is an ugly thing.
And here comes my favorite part. He must have liked it, too, because he repeated it damn near verbatim last month: “…the whole Google sensibility is inimical to traditional brand loyalty. Google encourages promiscuity — and shamelessly so — and therefore a significant proportion of their users don’t necessarily associate that content with the creator.” Promiscuity? So, according to this guy, if I regularly read the Wall Street Journal, and today, I also pick up a copy of USA Today, I’m cheating on the WSJ? This entire suggestion is so completely asinine as the defy easy rebuttal. I mean, how can it be that someone intelligent enough to get to be the editor of the primary financial newspaper on the planet could utter something so absurdly illogical not just once, but on several occasions? There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t even know where to begin.
So I’ll stick with the obvious. This comment ultimately gives a clear view of how old media sees the web. People actually want to be loyal to one particular brand (as if that trait hadn’t died out in virtually all respects decades ago, not just in newspapers) and that’s where their search for information begins and ends. Google is the one tempting the audience to sleep around (read around, I suppose) on their significant paper. Without Google, people would stay true and committed to their newsprint spouse.
Equating seeking out multiple sources of information to promiscuity, though, is mind-numbingly stupid. How can it possibly be a bad thing to seek to inform yourself as much as possible from as many points of view as you can? Unless, of course, you’re an old-time publishing monopolist who actually believes that your paper is the only one anyone needs. No one will ever inform you as well as we can. Wow.
What this says to me is that Thomson doesn’t really understand the WSJ’s unique position, or at least their brand’s value to that. Because of their high-end audience and detailed financial information, they have been able to make money online with both ad sales and a paywall. But he apparently doesn’t fully get that it’s the irreplaceable information that’s responsible for that, and somehow believes that it’s the brand of the Wall Street Journal that is superior enough to defy conventional wisdom and the odds to pull off their online success. If the info could make people money in the market, the site’s name could be “Bill’s Goat Cheese Emporium and Stock Tips” and people would still subscribe. Brand recognition has nothing to do with results.
Here’s one last quote, “There is a collective consciousness among content creators that they are bearing the costs and that others are reaping some of the revenues.” In this, he’s absolutely correct, just not in the way he thinks he is. The Wall Street Journal, no matter how nice of a platform it is, still isn’t a content creator. The people who put together the information, write the articles, take the photos, design the pages–they are content creators. The WSJ is a content distributor. There’s a big difference. He is correct however, that content creators are increasingly annoyed that they’re bearing the burden of producing content while others reap most of the revenue. And they’ve been doing it for a long time. Those others who have benefited disproportionally from content creators’ works; they’re called publishers.