23 November 2009

Why Newspapers Are Failing, Part 3,489

Most newspapers are watching the bottom drop out of their readership - even when they double-count readers. It would seem to me that newspapers (online and offline) really want to reverse that trend - at least that's what I hear a lot. So when I read that Rupert Murdoch is seriously considering removing his news sites from Google's search engines - to the point where he's negotiating with companies that have a mere fraction of the search volume of Google - I really get confused.

Restricting access to your content is not a way to get more people to see your content. That seems pretty basic to me.

Here's an analogy that works a lot better than most journalism types care to admit. A long time ago - way back before there were iPhones or Playstations or even the Wii Fit - we had this thing called a "phone book." The phone book was made of paper and had lists with contact information of all the people and businesses in your area. It was the thing people used when they wanted to know how to contact you on the phone - and remember, back then phones were actually attached to the wall by a cord. You can still see them in old movies or in museums. Phone books had sections - individuals were listed on white pieces of paper and businesses were listed on both the white and a separate section of yellow pieces of paper. (Those were called "yellow pages" - sheer genius, right?) Consumers never paid directly for the phone book - the money to make phone books came from ads that companies placed in those yellow pages near the sections that you would go to search for things like "pizza" or "plumbers" or "personal injury lawyers."

Back then phone books were really important - if you weren't in the phone book, people who didn't know much about you didn't know how to find you. Which was bad, because most people used the phone book. Sometimes other companies tried to come up with a different phone book, a better phone book, but most people still used the same phone book that they got in the first place. It had the most listings and was set up in a format that everyone understood.

So now we have a new phone book called Google. And YES, it's amazingly similar to that old phone book because, as Rupert Murdoch and his business partners keep insisting, information is (to them at least) a commodity. Sure, there are a couple of alternative (and fairly spiffy) phone books, but the overwhelming majority of people are still using the Google option, and the data seem to suggest that won't be changing anytime soon.

So now Rupert Murdoch and a few others are saying they're ready to take their names and numbers out of the phone book and if you want them, you have to go to this other phone book that pays them a fee. Of course, the original phone book will still have plenty of information and product remarkably similar to the product Mr. Murdoch "produces."

This journalism-as-commodity model, complete with artificial barriers to access, doesn't strike me as a path to long-term profitability. First, some players in this commodity model want to charge for the finished product but haven't considered the new costs they'd have to incur once the original sources of news discover their rightful place in the "value chain" of news. Second, it's just resisting the trend toward innovation and consumer empowerment. Consumers dictate the marketplace - they will find information they want to fit their interests and world view.

I think the folks at News Corp. are in for quite a shock if they think their brand is so powerful that people will use the search engine News Corp. tells them to.

1 comment:

Cristie Ritz King, M. Ed said...

I think maybe you should run the world-or at least the media part of it. BTW-not sure if I was supposed to, but I laughed out loud at your phonebook description. When I lived in the DC suburbs we would STILL get at least two phone books delivered once or twice a year. It used to infuriate (oh the recycling!) and humour us (who still uses this thing?).