Murdoch and Jobs – Frenemies of the Internet

November 22, 2010

Now we know why James Murdoch, heir apparent at NewsCorp, has been so messianic about the iPad recently. The Times/Sunday Times “apps” experiment is merely part of a bigger picture – perhaps a small one at that.

It has emerged – rather curiously via US fashion industry journal Women’s Wear Daily – that Murdoch Sr is working closely with Apple chief executive Steve Jobs on launching an entirely new, exclusively apps-driven newspaper (there will be no website or print ancillaries) that can be purchased on an iPad. Other tablet formats may follow (though Jobs’ views on this egalitarian gesture are unknown). What we can say is that the news vehicle will be called the Daily, that it will appear as early as the end of this month, that it has an upmarket skew, that it will cost 99 cents a week, and that it will probably be edited by NewsCorp’s blue-eyed boy Jesse Angelo, currently managing editor of The New York Post.

For the fuller implications of a personal alliance between these towering giants of the media and technology worlds, turn to Tim Berners-Lee. Spookily but – so far as I know – entirely independently, the founder of the internet has just published in Scientific American a searching critique of what he regards as internet abuse. Unwittingly, it provides considerable insight into why Murdoch and Jobs are batting in the same team.

Berners-Lee casts his net widely. He sees the internet – once a kind of communitarian brotherhood in virtual space – as increasingly under siege. The attack on its ‘inalienable’ freedoms comes from a number of sources, many of which are themselves firmly rooted in web culture. High on his list of targets, for example, are social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. To these he adds Google and US telecoms carrier Verizon, which earlier this year struck an agreement to exempt mobile access to the internet from web neutrality; that is, from the accepted principle that no web service may be prioritised over another by a pricing structure imposed on its delivery. And finally, he rounds on mobile and desktop applications – Apple’s in particular – which operate behind a walled garden of restricted access.

Berners-Lee’s wider point is that these forces have something in common. Each in its separate way is parcelling out the freedom to communicate on the internet by hiving off “silos of content”. Berners-Lee believes this development is a Bad Thing, because it will eventually choke off innovation by creating a more fragmented internet.

There is, however, another way of looking at Berners-Lee’s argument – and one likely to find far more favour with Messrs Murdoch and Jobs: turn it on its head.

While the internet remains a free, or “near-perfect” (in the economist’s jargon) market, no one can enjoy a lasting commercial advantage. Look no further than the record industry, or the media itself. This is good for internet joyriders, who want their news, views and music free, but unsustainable in the wider capitalist economy. Without a carefully managed investment programme and the principle of reasonable investor returns, innovation on the internet is just as likely to be stunted as it is by the dark forces of silo monopolies that Berners-Lee sees gathering on the virtual horizon.

Murdoch and Jobs have every reason to cooperate. The internet may, in the longer run, have much to lose if they do not.

James Murdoch’s faith in iPad ‘flagship products’ is misplaced

November 12, 2010

Here’s a sentence to savour. “Our flagship newspaper products are our iPad apps,” says James Murdoch, speaking at the Monaco Media Forum.

If that’s the case – I’m tempted to say – then we’re all in trouble; those of us in publishing at any rate. Certainly a recent study published by MediaVest, the global media buying outfit, doesn’t give room for much optimism. The 1500 people polled about their use of the iPad seemed to have a host of other preoccupations – such as reading books, managing personal calendars, watching video, accessing maps, listening to the radio – before they got round to reviewing a publication. Top of MediaVest’s Must Try Harder list were magazine publishers, but I suspect the news business was not all that far out front either.

In fairness, the survey was compiled back in July – practically a Pre-Cambrian era in terms of iPad experience; although that’s not exactly a reason for complacency. Have things moved on since then?

Murdoch Jnr clearly thinks they have. From what we now know of the Times/Sunday Times digital paywall experience, iPad users actually make up a fairly small proportion of the 105,000 paying online users: about 15,000 of them according to a Guardian analysis. Considering the newness of the Apple device and format (launched in April 2010), that’s not bad user penetration. But Murdoch’s point is a larger one.

The iPad app has certain similarities to a print product. Like a cover price, the access fee encourages people to pay for their content. Determining just how that payment should be made is a much more complex issue, and part of a broader online publishing strategy. But that’s less important for the Murdochs than the fact the iPad experience is helping them to surmount a huge psychological hurdle: the idea of parting people from their money for general news online.

Take this argument a little further, however, and we can see there is trouble ahead. The iPad news habit is attractive precisely because it so resembles the way we read a newspaper. It has a lean-back, browsing quality to it, wholly unlike the information-grubbing experience of assimilating information from a laptop or PC. As Murdoch himself says: “The problem with the apps is that they are much more directly cannibalistic of the print products than the website. People interact with them much more like they do with the traditional product.”

In other words, journalists and publishers beware – the news business is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The iPad and its like may have the ability to supplant the “traditional product”, but – as I have pointed out before – the commercial terms under which media owners operate are not going to be nearly so favourable as they were in the print era. It is technology companies, like Apple and Google, who are the gatekeepers in this new era. They make the kit, devise or control the ad platform, license the apps and determine the profit margins.

Laugh now, pay later if Murdoch gets his hands on the rest of BSkyB

November 2, 2010

At last, hard news from the impenetrable walled garden girdling The Times and Sunday Times these last four months. The Murdochs’s paywall strategy has harvested an astonishing 105,000 online subscribers – says News International, owner of the titles.

Well, not “subscribers” exactly, because that 105,000 includes quite a few birds of passage who have paid a couple of quid to visit the sites and then come no more. Lots of them, in fact. So the true number of subscribers? About 50,000 according to the Guardian – admittedly not the most objective of sources on the subject of paywall strategy, but probably near the truth on this occasion. Did I mention the iPad and Kindle subscribers? No, I thought not. They’re about 15,000 of this 50,000 figure. Which sounds heartening for Apple and Amazon, but less so for News International when you realise that they got an introductory two months of online access free.

I could go on, but I won’t. The figures are pretty meaningless in themselves, and muddied still further by the fact that there are another 100,000 print subscribers who receive the online version free. Even on the most optimistic viewing – that is to say 205,000 dedicated online visitors – the revenue would not amount to much by comparison with advertising lost after shutting down free access.

So what though? Never let it be said Rupert Murdoch bought The Times to make money – if he did, he’s been sadly disillusioned these past 30 years. In truth it has always been a loss leader in experimentation under his stewardship. First he tried dumbing it down, to take on The Telegraph. Now he is, perforce, reverting to a still loss-making but more elitist publication that happens to serve as an invaluable guinea pig in the post-print era.

Whatever the present cost of these lessons, it will be amply repaid should NewsCorp ever get its hands on the 61% of BSkyB it does not already own. BSkyB has total revenues of about £6bn a year; News International, the European subsidiary of NewsCorp, about £2.7bn. Forget enhanced earnings. The torrent of cash surging through the organisation alone would give the Murdochs all the flexibility they need  to experiment much more boldly with an online newspaper bundling programme for 10 million Sky subscribers. And the beauty of it would be that these self-same subscribers would have underwritten the experiment as well.

No wonder the competition are desperate to stop Murdoch’s bid in its tracks. In any forthcoming price war, he would be able to outspend the lot of them combined.

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