Man bites dogma

This was written a few weeks ago for the blog-in-development at MRM

Interesting opinion piece in the Guardian about Rupert Murdoch’s pronouncement last week that he expects News International titles to be charging for access to online content; effectively pay per view (PPV) for news content.

There are two sides to this: On the one hand, Mr Murdoch has always called trends in mass communication correctly; even sparking the trend. On the other hand, I suspect he’s got this one wrong because commercial imperative is overpowering judgment.

There’s no substantial evidence that pay-per-view readership has worked in the past and, while the Wall Street Journal may have got something right, that doesn’t mean to say that mass circulation papers will be able to pursue the same model.

Essentially, this is about protecting commercial rights and attempting to preserve the traditional media model because that’s where the profits are.

But what Mr Murdoch did to the so-called ‘Spanish practices’ of the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT) and National Graphical Association (NGA) in the early 80s is now coming back to haunt him. He booted out a traditional skill in the name of progress and now his traditional approach to content distribution is being booted out itself.

Marx would have a field day with the current environment because the owners of the means of production are being torn apart by fragmented, mass-micro media that offers more up to date and compelling content.

But what’s also happening is that once mass consumption newspapers are rapidly being squeezed in favour of alternatives – Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts, streaming media, radio, BBC, etc – so their profitability is inevitably being squeezed. So The Sun becomes a niche purchase for particular purposes i.e. the tea break, train or bus, because the medium its published in suits this context best. Mobile platforms are going to blow even this model wide open.

The fact is that the big rights owners and gatekeepers – film studios, record companies and publishers – are rapidly becoming disintermediated by the technology that distributes content. The accessibility of that technology is now so low that its free – take WordPress and Blogger as examples. Once you would have to invest in vast factories, printing presses, editorial teams, premises and a distribution infrastrutcure; now, you don’t have to.

What PPV does is restrict the power of the content as an ambassador for the brand. If you don’t allow people to consume content they want the way they want it, you’ll inevitably dilute the significance of the brands that generate it.

So, bizarrely, by trying to make more money now he’ll make the stock of his media titles less valuable in the very short term. There is absolutely nothing to stop journalists coalescing via online brands that can result in a printed paper if they decided to do so at relatively low cost – see The Printed Blog and My Local.

Brands like the Guardian and BBC have generally responded impressively to the challenge of new media, regarding themselves as content platforms and producers who content to be repurposed for consumption by different audience. It’s likely that, today, their strategy for traditional newsprint content will stand the test of time compared to adherence to the dogma of traditional print distribution. In fact, it’s a compelling argument that the Guardian’s brand is now more potent because is adapted to digital; its brand is now global (and considered to be one of the top 100 most influential web brands in the world see the Web Trend Map 2009).

If there’s going to be a resurgence in print, it’s more likely to be at a regional and local level. The significance of national newspapers is rapidly diminishing in contrast to their potential online brands.

Of course, it’s a matter of opinion.

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