Rupert Murdoch continues his war with the Internet. Over the weekend, he told an interviewer (the interviewer, on Sky News Australia, works for him) that as part of his campaign to charge users for reading his content, what he plans to do is to block Google from indexing his newspapers.
As of a year ago, Murdoch had never used Google — never once, by himself, run an Internet search — and so it might be reasonable to assume he doesn’t know what’s involved here.
It is quite possible he doesn’t realize — and can’t fathom — that removing News Corp’s newspapers from Google means that, in the largest part of the information market, they would cease to count, cease to be a factor, that their absence would not register as a hole.
Nor, it is possible, does he realize that as much as 90% of his traffic comes from Google and other search engines, that even if his goal is to sell content, there is really no other way to direct people to it than through search engines.
So his idea is something like wanting to sell newspapers but not wanting to let people see them on the newsstand where they might read the headlines for free.
As it happens, Murdoch’s campaign to put content back in the tube and to have consumers pay to get it out is proving, in one sense, curiously successful. He has publishers all over Britain and America who say they are ready to back him in his plan. Of course, they all have nothing to lose by encouraging Rupert to lead this charge and have his papers disappear while their papers remain free a while longer and scoop up his online readers.
Rupert, in other words, doesn’t have the most rudimentary know-how about cause and effect when it comes to building an online news business, paid or otherwise. He is not, in this regard, quite compos mentis. He gets to sound off this way, to embarrass himself and confound everyone else, because of the rare nature of his company — he can’t be fired or even corrected (he doesn’t really listen). And he is not ridiculed by his fellow publishers because many of them too are vague on the business basics.
But what if, in fact, he actually knows what he’s doing? What if he doesn’t want to build an online business? What if his war with the Internet is of a much more fundamental nature? What if he wants his papers (that is, his wood pulp papers) to last, well, as long as he lasts?
It actually may be easier to get people inclined to buy his papers to buy them in wood pulp form than it is to get them to pay a subscription fee online. It actually may be more economical to have nobody come to his websites, for nobody to expect him to have a website, than to have to keep up the cursed programming of ever-cooler bells and whistles. Rupert may not know from Google, but he does know the truth that publishers have always known: better to have no readers than readers who cost you more than you make on them.
Old-fashioned publishers, and there is no publisher more old fashioned than Rupert, are good at simple math. If you can only get a few more people to buy your paper, if you can just stop your circulation from falling as fast as it’s been falling, you can stay in business a while longer.
The Internet is going to put all of them out of business, but why help it?
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff’s articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at [email protected] You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.