Will the internet kill newspapers, and is Google holding the pistol? Rupert Murdoch certainly seems to think so. He's mad as hell, and he's not going to take it any more.
But before we get into that, I'd like to make a modest proposal.
From this day forward, let's lose the term 'newspapers'. That's like calling websites 'newspixels'. Paper and pixels are just delivery mechanisms, and not mutually exclusive ones; no publications worth reading publish only on dead trees any more (or if they do, they aren't long for this world). We need a new collective noun for this, such as News Gathering Organisations (NGOs) or possibly Sloppy Drunks With Keyboards (SDWKs).
Many publishers have proposed that the only way to save newspap - err, Sloppy Drunks With Keyboards - is to erect a pay wall its readers would have to climb over, presumably dropping some loose change along the way. In theory this would fund the reporting that SDWKs do (because online advertising alone isn't cutting it) and keep publishers swimming in caviar and Cristal, because that's why they hire SDWKs in the first place.
Murdoch: howlin' mad
Thus we come to Rupert Murdoch, who has talked about charging for online access to his gaggle of right-wing publications and news networks for well over a year.
According to a TV interview conducted last Friday by David Speers of the Murdoch-owned Sky News, the aging media baron is considering blocking Google's access to his online empire after all his sites adopt a pay wall, as The Wall Street Journal has done. That would (in theory) make it invisible to the Big Friendly Search Giant.
When Speers asked Murdoch why he hasn't blocked sites from being seen by search engines, he replied: "I think we will. But that's when we start charging. We do it already with The Wall Street Journal. We have a wall, but it's not right to the ceiling. You can get the first paragraph of any story but if you're not a paying subscriber, you get a paragraph and a subscription form."
As PaidContent's Staci D Kramer points out, however, Murdoch does not seem to understand how his own flagship publication actually works online.
"I just found two WSJ stories through Google and was able to read each of them in different browsers," she notes. "Clicking a second story from the article page brought up a promo about how I could see more of the Journal free online - if I register - but I could still read the story. Third story - I was blocked. (I'm a subscriber but logged out to test this.) The Journal isn't invisible - but much of it can be impenetrable after a certain point."
I'm with Staci on that one. It used to be you simply couldn't get WSJ content online without paying. Now about half the time I can find the Journal story I'm looking for - and the rest of the time I can find a pretty good summary elsewhere.
Let's presume News Corp figures this out and manages to keep all of its content from being indexed by Google News. What happens to News Corp then? Not much. Google News is really for people who like to choose from a wide range of sources. Murdoch's audience have already picked the news sources they trust. They aren't looking for alternative viewpoints. So in that sense, Murdoch is on safe ground; blocking Google isn't going to hurt him much.
The paywall issue though is a bigger problem, in my ever so humble opinion. News is a commodity. Even if one source breaks an exclusive story - and those are incredibly rare - everyone else will have it within the hour. And the good ones will follow up with new information, moving the story along. Because that's the way journalism works.
Worse, it only takes one blogger with a paid subscription to blab that exclusive story to the rest of the world. I don't care how many lawyers you have, you won't be able to suppress that. What happens next? The world flocks to the blogger's door, because the site is free, and skips the original source with the coin box attached.
Do they get a crisply reported, well-written story? Probably not. Do most people care? Not particularly.
What's the solution? If I knew that, I'd be swimming in caviar and Cristal myself.
Many high-profile publications such as The New York Times decided to embrace Google by making their publications easier to navigate via things such as Fast Flip, and are speeding toward digital delivery mechanisms such as the Amazon Kindle and the as-yet mythical Apple Tablet. Good ideas; not sure they'll make a damn bit of difference.
As I've said elsewhere, the bigger problem is that Google News and other online aggregators are not meritocracies. The best stories do not always rise to the top. It's a horse race where the only thing that matters is speed, cheating is encouraged, any nag can win, and the stragglers get sent to the glue factory.
Google's algorithms are broken. Fix those, and at least some of this problem goes away. Not for Murdoch, of course - he's boycotting it. But maybe for the rest of us SDWKs.