It must be pretty humbling to feel your power slipping away. And not just slipping away to an equally powerful competitor, but slipping away to —gasp! — ordinary people.
Let’s just say you’re the Australian head of a massive, global media company and that you’re accustomed to people doing what you say. You grew up in a social and business environment where money meant power, where media barons were the only people who could afford to communicate directly with large numbers of people; it has been this way for as long as you can remember, and as long as your father’s generation can remember for that matter. But one day along comes this thing called The Internet, promising to democratise the flow of information, and something terrible begins to happen: the plebs grow bold and start to rise up, empowered by having their voice heard, unworried about profit or business models. If you were that media baron what would you do? Would you adapt or would you atrophy?
When this news and journalism environment started to change dramatically about a decade ago, newspaper media companies initially refused to change with it. They whacked their stories online, slapped a couple of ads up with them, and sat back waiting for the rivers of internet gold to flow. But people don’t use the internet like they do traditional media forms, and most attempts by traditional players to adapt to this new form have been contrived and poorly executed. The failure to adapt a product to a market is bad business, but the petulant bitching and moaning from dinosaur media chiefs who want the world to stop moving so they don’t have to get off their arse and move with it is just bad form.
When News Ltd CEO John Hartigan addressed the National Press Club yesterday he angrily took aim at absolutely everyone in a lumbering speech of contradictions and non-sequiturs. Like a cornered soldier in a ferocious firefight, he stood with his back pressed against the wall, haunted eyes open wide, firing his rifle wildly and indiscriminately in erratic arcs at anything that moved. He made many points during his speech, but the main theme seemed to be: how dare you people who haven’t suffered through a newspaper cadetship and operating outside the employ of a large newspaper organisation communicate with a wider audience?
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Some of Hartigan’s best venom was reserved for bloggers, who he said produced content of “limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance”. Along with news aggregation services (Google and others) and non-traditional media outlets like Crikey, bloggers are despised by Hartigan for shamelessly reproducing his outlets’ content instead of producing their own. I know this because I read his speech on a webpage at The Australian’s site, at the bottom of which was this giant invitation to share the paper’s content with bloggers, news aggregators and Google.
Leading us to the central paradox: Hartigan says that for every one hardcopy reader his papers lose, ten online readers must be attracted to break even. In an attempt to attract those ten readers, newspaper websites desperately require blogs and other online fora to reference and link to their stories, hoping that the expanded readership will click back to the original story to eyeball the attached advertising. If such a co-dependence (and it is co-dependence because newspaper journalists often refer to blogs’ content in their reporting) is necessary for the financial stability of traditional media outlets then Hartigan getting huffy and bitchy about bloggers re-publishing his content is laughable.
And let’s be totally honest about what Hartigan’s outlets are up against here: there are blogs and then there are blogs. Any bozo or halfwit with a WordPress or Blogger account can cut and paste massive swathes of newspaper copy into a blog post, add a line or two of comment, and wait patiently for six or seven readers to accidentally stumble across the result while Googling “Britney vids”. But how are these pisspoor “citizen journalism” efforts cannibalising Hartigan’s business model? The combined financial effect of these blogs’ thieving of News Ltd content wouldn’t even total the cost of his Cabcharge to the Press Club yesterday.
Hartigan says he could summarise his speech in two dot points: “If you want to attract readers, break stories people want to read,” and “give them something they can’t get anywhere else, make it relevant and useful and let them get involved.” While the vast majority of blogs of the type described above offer nothing new to their reader(s), the larger, more popular blogs are right across Hartigan’s dot points — they’re offering people something they want to read, often by looking at an issue from a new angle; they’re giving readers something they can’t get anywhere else, in the form of the blogger’s unique perspective, personality and writing style; and they’re letting the reader get involved by facilitating a proper conversation, unhindered by clunky moderation policies and properly involving the article’s author.
Often these blogs refer to articles published by mainstream media organisations, quoting sections of text under the fair use provisions of the copyright act, but they’re also adding significant content of their own. In effect, bloggers and their readers are merely discussing those news stories in the same way that people discuss the content of a physical newspaper around the water cooler. Ultimately, this quoting and discussion leads to readers’ awareness of Hartigan’s publications and directs their eyeballs towards Hartigan’s ads.
Traditional journalism and blogging do not compete with each other; it’s not an either/or proposition. A modern news consumer does not consume news and comment from a single source, and it is this fact of 21st century life that so upsets Hartigan and his ilk. The modern news consumer looks to a large and dynamic range of sources for reporting, comment, analysis and debate to inform their world view, and increasingly look to sources that let them get involved. There is room in this multidirectional environment for traditional journalism, blogs, news aggregators, independent media and social networking to all play important roles. The days of a newspaper holding exclusive power over their readers’ eyeballs are over, as are the days of unilateral communication from powerful journalist to subservient reader. Hartigan can feel his power slipping away and he’s not humbled, just frightened and pissed off.
In the end, Hartigan seems to have faith in the idea that quality content has the power to attract paying readers. If that’s the case, and if he’s so sure that what he’s got to offer is so much better than bloggers, then he’s got nothing to worry about. Associate editor of Hartigan’s highest circulation newspaper and, um, blogger, Andrew Bolt, says that “relevance and credibility will be the keys to [News Ltd’s] survival.” And if that’s the case, while News Ltd publications are pumping out credible and relevant content such as the fake Pauline Hanson teenage pictures and Piers Akerman, Hartigan’s got lots to worry about.