New York, early years of the twentieth century and a bunch of rag traders notice that people will pay almost anything to watch these new kinematograph flicker thingies. They hire some halls and pretty soon they’ve got a chain of kinemas. At some point it becomes worth it to start making the fillums themselves. But Thomas Edison controls patents on the cameras, so the new film makers — Louis B Mayer, Sam Gelbfisk, the brothers Warner — send their crews out west to a Los Angeles suburb called Hollywoodland.

From that moment on, the movie moguls attributed their decades of success to some innate sense of what the public wanted. It was all tchtokes of course — they had just got in at the ground floor. When TV came along in the 50s they didn’t have a clue what to do, and by the end of the decade half of the studios were broke.

Are we seeing something of the same thing with Rupert Murdoch’s arsed-up relationship to the internet? Five years or so ago Murdoch thought that the internet was never going to threaten papers, then he suddenly rushed pell mell into it as a feed to papers, then three months ago someone showed him Google News, and now he’s talking about trying to corral content back with paid online subscriptions.

Does the man actually have a clue what’s going on? Of course not. He’s a smart businessman, who made some astute early decisions — such as turning the boring trade union paper The Daily Herald into the page three stunna gotcha Sun in the 1960s — but in terms of wider analysis, he’s an obvious man who thinks obvious thoughts.

Central to his idea that papers can suddenly claw back the material they’ve put out for free is the delusion that newspaper buying and reading is a static habit, unchanging beneath the flow of tech change. It’s not — the net has changed our relationship to writing, news and information utterly, and to think otherwise is to believe that the middle ages could have uninvented block printing and gone back to the monasteries.

Paying for a physical newspaper is/was something you just did, even five years ago. Now, the idea that your morning’s news would come encased in a single source seems odd – and paying for straight news items on the web (as opposed to the excellent goulash of punch and pugilistic your reading now etc) seems absurd. Who reads a newspaper website, the way they used to read a paper?

You flick round a dozen of them, take feeds, jump through hyperlinks and any site that wants to charge for info, better have stuff that people are actually willing to pay for — ie financial news, research articles, commodities stuff. The stuff we used to pay for — crash in Mildura leaves two dead, Footscray Rd bridge re-opens, blah blah — won’t cut it.

Is that a crisis for news gathering? You bet. But to focus on that would be — to return to the print example — to declare that Gutenburg’s invention spelt trouble for the scroll-making industry. Murdoch and many others have got the times repeatedly wrong because what is happening is not the death of newsprint, but an effective crisis of mass intellectual property and copyright.

Printing ultimately gave us the reformation and the enlightenment — whatever’s coming from this revolution is well out of Rupert’s ken. He never stopped being big — it’s just that the pictures got small, and transmitted on iPhones, while the papers pile up on pallets nearby.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey