Rupert Murdoch, the Convergence Placebo, and iPad Gellcaps

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch apparent announcement that his company will launch a new U.S. national newspaper to be distributed digitally (not printed) and exclusively as paid content for mobile phones tablet computers such as Apple Inc.’s iPad is not only a classic case of the Convergence Placebo but of how the iPad is making that placebo much easier to swallow for misguided executives of media companies.

According to the Las Angeles Times:

The initiative, which would directly compete with The New York Times, USA Today and other national publications, is the latest attempt by a major media organization to harness sexy new devices to reach readers who increasingly consume their news on the go. The development underscores how the iPad is transforming the reading habits of consumers much like the iPod changed how people listen to music.

“We’ll have young people reading newspapers,” the 79-year-old Murdoch said during the company’s Aug. 4 earnings call. “It’s a real game changer in the presentation of news.”

Two intertwined threads of thinking underlie the thinking of Murdoch and others who mistakenly believe that devices such as the Apple iPad will reverse the declines of daily newspapers in post-industrial countries:

  1. The belief that the reason why the circulations and readerships of daily newspapers in post-industrial countries have been declining for nearly 30 years and begun plunging during the past 5 is because people, particularly young people, want to read newspapers online rather that in print.
  2. The second thread is the belief that placing newspapers on tablet devices and on mobile phones will increase the numbers of people who read newspapers, simply because more people use mobile phones and might use tablet devices than now read printed newspapers.

That first thread is the thickest—by which I mean it is most favored by the thick-headed media executives who don’t understand why the circulations and readerships of daily newspapers in post-industrial countries have been declining for nearly 30 years. Readerships and circulations did not decline during the 1980s and 1990s because people were waiting to read daily newspapers on tablets devices or mobile phones. Circulations and readerships declined because those newspapers’ contents increasingly didn’t satisfy people.

‘It’s The Content, Stupid!’

To paraphrase political consultant James Carville‘s Democratic Party slogan during the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, it’s the content, stupid! The reason why newspapers have declined is the content, not the device that content is on.

The newspapers’ contents increasingly didn’t satisfy people because people gained access to other media that could more articulately satisfy each newspaper reader’s individual needs and interests better than any traditionally produced daily newspaper could.

The fact is that the traditional daily newspaper is a common edition that is delivered to each of its readers; each reader gets the same edition that day.  The editor selects which stories all readers get, and because there space for only a limited number of stories in each day’s edition, the editor chooses those stories according to two broad criteria: the stories about which he thinks all readers should be informed and the stories that might have the greatest common interest to all readers.

The resulting selection of 30 to 100 stories per day (depending upon the circulation size of that newspaper) is therefore a limited choice that might satisfy a few of each reader’s individual interests but is highly unlikely to satisfy all of all readers’ interests. Surveys of newspaper readers half a century ago show that the average reader reads 6 to 8 of the 30 to 100 stories per day. Surveys of newspaper readers during the decades since show that the numbers of stories read have declined to approximately half that number.

During the 1980s and 1990s, as people gained access to cable television and satellite television, and offset lithography made publication of topical magazines economical, people began satisfying their individual interests by watching those new forms of television and reading those topical magazine more and more and reading daily newspapers less and less. Once people began to gain Internet access during the 1990s, and particularly when they got it on broadband during this past decade, they gained immediate access to a quarter billion websites, blogs, and social media networks that could satisfy their individual needs and interests incredibly better than any daily newspaper could. (Indeed, daily newspaper circulations in post-industrial countries began to plummet around 2004, approximately when the majority of the households in those countries acquired broadband Internet access.)

The Los Angeles Times story about Murdoch’s announcement notes, “The development underscores how the iPad is transforming the reading habits of consumers much like the iPod changed how people listen to music.” Yet if fails to note that the iPod changed music by letting people purchase the specific songs that fit a person’s specific interests rather than having to get an entire package (album) of other songs that might not.

So, if the reason why daily newspapers’ circulation and readership have plummeted is the newspaper’s generic package of content, why would putting that package of content on iPads, tablet devices, and mobile phones reverse those declines? It doesn’t makes sense.

Yet that generic package content of newspapers is that industry’s sacred cow. Despite lip service about change, there is huge denial that newspapers’ journalism, generic story selection practices, and delivery of a common edition to all is the problem. An industry whose idea of a major change is whether or not to permit an advertisement on page one, is unfit and unwilling to deal with fundamental changes.

‘It’s My Baby!

The newspaper industry instead desperately wants to find some way to continue its practices unchanged but online, or as they call it in ‘digital edition’ format. Flaws and all, the traditional newspaper is their baby and if they can find a way to parade it in the newest fashions, they feel hope that it will survive.

Behold their iPad edition! It looks like a newspaper, it contains the traditional newspaper’s content, but it’s digital and its from famously innovative Apple Inc. The 79 year-old Murdoch calls it a “game changer” that will “have young people reading newspapers.”

Which leads to the second thread upon which swallowers of the Convergence Placebo are hanging themselves: placing newspapers on tablet devices and on mobile phones will increase the numbers of people who read newspapers.

It will. It actually will. Some people who don’t read a newspaper edition on the Web might prefer reading one in the iPad format, in which a traditional newspaper looks like a traditional newspaper and not a webpage. It will because some people who prefer to read only when mobile (or only perhaps to kill time when stuck in transit) might do so on a mobile phone or tablet device.

However, the number of new readers who newspapers gain from iPad or mobile phone editions is very unlikely to compensate for the number of readers newspapers are losing in print. Nor would the revenues gained compensate for the much large revenues lost in print.

Like gellcap pills, iPad editions make the placebo of convergence easier to swallow, increasing an ill industry’s hope that it will survive, yet not bringing it the treatment it really needs for recovery.

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