Having spoken about online news at the Pro Training Seminar last month, and given this week's discussion about Rupert Murdoch's plans for his online properties, I felt that I should offer some comment on his plans, and the direction that online news is taking.
SkyNews Australia broadcast a 40 minute interview with Murdoch last week. Throughout much of the interview - talking about Australian and global politics - he comes across as sensible, interesting, educated about issues and aware of the boundaries of his knowledge.
However, when the conversation is about NewsCorp's online activities, Murdoch simply brushes aside the important questions with short, vague answers that mostly fail to stand up to a little logical thought. He varies between looking confused, and looking happy with himself (particularly when he remembers to mention 'the blog websites' and talks about behaviour of the 'search people'.)
I stole this image from a NewsCorp website
I've tried different ways of presenting his argument and different ways of looking at what he proposes, but there is no logical thread to the discussion. This makes analysis hard, until you realise that an important distinction is being blurred by the conversation.
There are three distinct topics here:
- Whether people are stealing your content
- Whether search engines should index your URLs and link to you on relevant search result pages
- Whether your websites should charge users for content.
1 - Are people stealing your content?
If people are republishing your articles, this is almost certainly 'content theft' (copyright infringement) and - though not always easy to overcome - should undoubtedly be pursued. Whatever the business model behind publishing content, this will usually be affected when the content can be read elsewhere.
Don't put up with anyone who steals content.
2 - Should search engines index your URLs?Murdoch suggests that people who visit via search engines don't become regular readers. He says that he'd like to have fewer visitors to each site (in favour of having a core of paying subscribers) and also suggest that his sites are disadvantaged when search visitors arrive because the sites can't collect data about 'who they are or where they are'.
However: assuming that a certain percentage of visitors from each source will convert into regular visitors, and assuming that the marginal cost of showing a web page to one person is exceptionally low, there's very little reason not to allow traffic from search engines.
Is there an overlap between these first two questions? Do search engines publish so much article content that it could be considered a substitute for visiting the source site? Obviously not. In fact, a lot of the time I don't think this is even what Murdoch means by 'theft ' - at times he broadly seems to mean that by being a popular portal that leads to many destinations, Google is 'stealing' advertising from publishers. Maybe.
Despite all this, Murdoch seems keen to press ahead on removing his sites from Google (he also mentioned Microsoft and Ask.com as similar sites) with the expectation that people will find the sites through other routes and become regular direct visitors.
3 - Should users pay for the site content?Did you notice that the last answer doesn't need to mention pay-walls etc? This is a separate issue, and one that should mainly be decided on economic factors, by asking the question: "can we maximise long-term profit of a site by charging to access content, or by allowing free access to content and generating revenue through adverts and other sources?"
So what's going to happen?There's the possibility that NewsCorp properties might be exclusively indexed by one search engine (discussed by Jason Calcanis) and it's likely that even if surrounded by incompetent Yes-men, Murdoch won't just give up 44% of the new users and 100,000 clicks per minute to his sites.
This might all be an elaborate ruse - whilst we're all confused by a bloke who makes the logic leaps of a drunken grandfather and talks about these topics with little apparent confidence in his own authority, he could be busy negotiating some exceptionally savvy deals.
He's done it before, and might just be about to do it again. There's a lot riding on it, and a lot of people lined up all with the same idea: let's just wait and see.