Rupert Murdoch's Crazy Old Man Syndrome, or Why Can't News Find a Business Model?

August 8, 2017

This week, another chapter in the slow-motion car crash that is the decline of the news industry (excuse me while I mix my metaphors; I’m working on reduced brain cells today): Rupert Murdoch announced that News Corp. will consider moving its websites to a paid subscription model and voluntarily delisting them from Google—equating search engine listings to plagiarism. In an interview with Sky News (video clip below), he also claimed that “fair use is illegal,” a move Cory Doctorow called the “loonie cherry atop a banana split with extra crazy sauce.”

Murdoch claims that “search people” (anyone who finds a story on one of the News Corp. sites via search) aren’t a worthwhile audience. They click on an item in the Google results, take what they want (for free) and may never come back. They’re not “loyal readers.” The obvious problem with this thinking is that you’re cutting off an enormous source of potential future loyal readers. By removing News Corp. sites from search results, Murdoch will essentially freeze his “loyal” audience at its current size; when you give up that scalable (and free) way for people to discover the sites, that number will only go down as people let their subscriptions lapse, find other (free) news sources and/or die. Not to mention all the people who use Google to navigate—some loyal but lazy or non-tech-savvy readers surely Google "WSJ" instead of bookmarking the site. Isn’t “Facebook” like the #1 search query?

I read a lot of interesting commentary on and criticism of Murdoch’s position, from within the search marketing neck of the blogosphere woods as well as mainstream publications. Almost everyone thinks Murdoch is a crazy old man who doesn’t understand the Internet. Doctorow (writing for both the Guardian and Boing Boing) thinks he has no intention of removing his content from search entirely, but rather has dollar signs in his eyes and a nutty plan to sell the exclusive indexing rights to an also-ran search engine:

So what he's hoping is that a second-tier search engine like Bing or Ask (or, better yet, some search tool you've never heard of that just got $50MM in venture capital) will give him half a year's operating budget in exchange for a competitive advantage over Google.

He may, in fact, get a taker. And it will be a disaster. A search engine whose sole competitive advantage is "We have Rupert Murdoch's pages!" will not attract any substantial traffic. The search engine will either go bust or fail to renew the deal.

Virginia Nussey played devil’s advocate and entertained the idea that Murdoch is onto something:

Think of how much attention has been given to an organization deciding how to use its own content. Google has openly given publishers a clean and simple solution to opting out of the index (along with any benefits that go with it). Why does it bother us so much that a mammoth publisher like News Corp. wants out? I wonder if it's because we've worked so hard in evangelizing the business and Web community that it kills us to see an argument from the other side of the debate get such high visibility in the mainstream media.

The way I see it, if News Corp. finds a profitable and viable way to charge for their own content, the more power to them.

Tim Cavanaugh on the Reason blog concedes that Murdoch knows a thing or two making money in media, but doesn’t think a strategy that involves limiting your reader base is a viable one:

Murdoch's plan to get fewer readers but paying readers is also sadly reminiscent of the plan for "smaller but higher-value" circulation that many newspapers claimed to be pursuing for a few years around the turn of the 21st century. Of course that plan came to nothing, not because it went against newspapers' future but because it went against their past: The purpose of news publishing has always been to get the maximum number of readers.

The most “colorful” response has got to be the one on “The Worst SEO Blog Ever”:

While most websites are bending over backwards licking Matt Cutts and sacrificing goats at the altar of Google to get some traffic, Mr. Murdoch is taking the bold new path of not having his sites indexed and perhaps rank for relevant news stories in Google. As part of his new paid access to News Corp. content, he’s cutting access to Google and other aggregators because they’ve been getting some sort of a free ride on the ol’ Rupert Murdoch express. So, while the search engines and aggregators have been pimping his friggin’ sites for him for free, he’s decided to call bullshit on them and go to a paid model? Seriously, that’s a good strategy?

Rupert, it’s time to join the year 2009. Yes, Google, Bing, Yahoo! and all the search engines, as well as all the news aggregators, have been getting free shit from you. In return, you get a whole bunch of friggin’ links that build value to your online properties. As a result, your sites rank for stuff. All because your websites are considered a fucking resource!!! What’s so hard about that to understand?!?!?!

I like this guy’s style.

Among the statements Murdoch makes that ring true/make sense: “It’s hard to find people under thirty who buy newspapers.” This echoes the sentiment of San Francisco’s mayor on the fact that the San Francisco Chronicle is probably folding: “People under thirty won’t even notice.” (I read this in an article in the November issue of Harper’s titled “Final Edition: Twilight of the American Newspaper” by Richard Rodriguez, which also contains this poignant line: “With a certain élan, the San Francisco Chronicle has taken to publishing letters from readers who remark the diminishing pleasure or usefulness of the San Francisco Chronicle.”)

While I, tragically, can no longer claim to be under thirty, I still get no pleasure from print news and fail to see its use value. I don’t even have a go-to online news source—I prefer aggregator sites and the meta-news of Twitter and blogs: a self-assembling, multi-source, multi-vocal (and free) form of news consisting only of the “sections” that I care to read. It’s a Digg theory of journalism: the most important stuff rises to the top, and I don’t have to sift through everything to determine what’s significant.

People do want news, but not the way they used to get it. Any news source that’s mad at its readers is going to crash and burn. I don’t know what the business model for news in a Web 2.0 world is, but I know it has to take the way people consume news into account.

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Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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