Tag Archives: Murdoch

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.

WSJ Parody; Pan Am and UPI; and Reuters Hot Car

Guardian Unlimited today offers MoveOn.org’s parody (PDF) of what Rupert Murdoch will do to The Wall Street Journal. It fills the WSJ‘s front-page format with pro-Republic, anti-Democratic party headlines and excerpts from the Murdoch’s “Fair and Balanced” Fox TV News Network.

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Speaking of parodies, the story that United Press International is cutting 11 staffers in its Washington, D.C., bureau, including its lone White House correspondent, hit me with all the impact of another story last week: that Pan Am will stop flying to there from New Haven, Connecticut. Who are these companies fooling but themselves.

There is a Pan Am airlines. Or, at least, there are some folks who bought the Pan American Airlines name and logotype years ago and have started a very small airline that mainly flies between the a former air force base north of Boston to Trenton, New Jersey; Elmira, New York; and nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It’s certainly in no way connected or related to the legendary Pan American Airlines, the dominant U.S. international airline that went bankrupt in 1991. But it wants people to think so.

There is a United Press International. Or, at least, there is the Reverend Sun Yung-Moon’s Unification Church, which operates a very small news service employing perhaps a dozen people who appear to work mainly from their homes (the Unification Church also owns the Washington Times newspaper, which at least has a building). This UPI can perhaps claim some distant relation to the legendary United Press International news service that employed 1,200 reporters in 184 news bureaus worldwide. The legendary UPI was sold during 1982 to two Kentucky entrepreneurs who bankrupted it three years later. The bankruptcy court sold it to a Mexican publisher whose manuevers bankrupted it again in 1985, when the bankruptcy court this time sold it to the owner of the Financial News Network. That owner sold it to some Saudi investors, shortly before he went to federal prison on a felony conviction for securities fraud. And the Saudis later sold it to the Moonies. So, I guess you could say the company currently called UPI is related to the legendary old UPI through two bankruptcies, a felony conviction, and at least consecutive five sets of owners. The new company would like you to think it’s the same company.

I wish the current entity called Pan Am would ground its airplanes, remove the legendary logotype and name from those planes, and rename the company and its aircraft something else. At least the current entity called UPI is doing something similar by closing most of its last known office and leaving the White House (now if we can only get what’s left of the compay to change names). [Disclaimer: I worked for the old UPI from 1983-89, when it still had some air beneath its wings.]

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I yesterday mentioned that the Boston Herald, rather than using its own presses, is negotiating with Dow Jones to print it. Today comes news that the Boston Globe will print two newspaper that compete with it, The Patriot Ledger and The Enterprise, two Gatehouse Media dailies in towns near Boston.

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When a news company gets funding, does that validate it’s business plan or purpose? Not necessarily, but many journalists mistake so. Too many journalists confuse finance and business.

The aim of business people is to generate profits from the operations of businesses. The aim of financiers is to generate a profit by buying or selling businesses. Those are different aims. There is also a third class of people called entrepreneurs who start businesses they hope will generate a profit or be bought by financiers (or by the public if the comnpany’s equity becomes sold on the stock markets). Entreprenuers very often sell part of their nascent businesses to financiers to get enough funding to fund the business until it’s profitable, likely to be profitable, or otherwise becomes attractive enough for the majority of its stock to purchased by financers or the public.

Most financiers aren’t dumb, but few have expertise in new-media, particularly new concepts in new-media. They sometimes invest in new businesses founded on unsound plans, even when the newest new-media concept underlying those plans may be solid. ‘If the concept isn’t sound, then why would those companies be funded by tens or hundreds of millions of dollars?’ goes the circular logic. Remember the huge funding given to ‘Push’ technologies during the mid-1990s or to the cuecat scanner technology at the turn of the millennium, etc.? Many trade journals heralded that funding as proof that those technologies and business plans were sound.

I hope that the $10 million funding that Associated Content received this week and the $10.6 million that NowPublic received last week is spent wisely. I hope they’re more of a ‘slam-dunk’ than Backfence was.

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Earlier this year, I wrote about how online journalists now comprise the second largest category of journalists who are killed, wounded, or imprisoned each year, fewer of them print journalists, but more than broadcast journalists. So, I’m sad to hear that Abel Mutsakani, editor of ZimOnline, an independent Zimbabwean news service based in South Africa, was shot last weekend. He is in serious condition with a ruptured lung and a bullet lodged near his heart. The Guardian reported that Mutsakani was parking his car near his home when three men attacked him. Nothing was stolen in the assault. Mutsakani was once managing editor of Zimbabwe’s Daily News newspaper, which was banned in 2003 by the government. He moved to Johannesburg and set up ZimOnline, providing coverage of the social and economic strife back home

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Video letters-to-the-editor are an interesting experiement at the Sacremento Bee. Back when I worked in daily newspapers (1977-83) we’d receive but not publish some real rabid printed letters-to-the editors. I can only imagine the video equivalents: Hand gestures instead of four-letter words. But it’s great to see a newspaper publish (broadcast?) the rational ones.

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Kudos to the Associated Press, Agence France Presse and l’Equipe last week for helping Reuters at the Tour de France last month. Photo District News reports:

Reuters photogs seem to be having a lot of bad luck these days. Four Reuters photogs went to shoot the Tour de France and were dealt a series of mishaps, ranging from photog Eric Gaillard’s brand new Canon Mark III and lens being stolen to photog Vincent Kessler having to undergo tests for suspected coronary irregularity. And then, Mal Langsdon got an Instant Message from Reuters’ student-assistant (and Mal’s son) Ian Langsdon saying, “S–t, S–t, we’re on fire!” referring to the Renault the team was driving. But, even in the photo world, the race must go on. So many outlets published the Reuters’ photogs’ pix of their burning car, and the Associated Press, Agence France Presse and l’Equipe shared their production until Reuters could resume coverage.