If websites don’t cannibalize, how about apps?

By Felix Salmon
November 12, 2010
James Murdoch seems to have decided that free websites might not really cannibalize newspapers after all:

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James Murdoch seems to have decided that free websites might not really cannibalize newspapers after all:

Sales of newspaper apps for devices like the Apple iPad are cannibalizing sales of physical newspapers, James Murdoch, head of News Corp’s operations in Europe and Asia, said Friday…

He said apps for mobile devices, with which readers typically engage far more than they do with computer websites, were more dangerous to print sales.

“The problem with the apps is that they are much more directly cannibalistic of the print products than the website,” he said. “People interact with it much more like they do with the traditional product.

This is intuitively true, but I’m not persuaded yet. For one thing, everybody thought that free websites were cannibalizing print newspapers, before we changed our minds. Rupert Murdoch, of course, was the loudest such person, saying that “an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalizing its ability to produce good reporting.” And so long as such statements are based on gut feeling rather than any kind of quantitative analysis, they’re pretty worthless.

What’s more, News Corp is still putting enormous paywalls up around its UK newspaper websites, to no good effect. If James Murdoch is coming around to the idea that websites don’t cannibalize newspapers after all, what’s the point?

My feeling is that James Murdoch is probably half right here: there are some people who will directly replace a print subscription with a tablet subscription. Equally, however, there are surely also people who will find that a tablet subscription enhances the value they get from the physical newspaper, and increases their loyalty to it. Is the first group larger than the second? One thing we know for sure is that it’s far too early to tell.

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2 comments so far

About 5 years ago I saw a prototype for a paper thin video screen that was being touted as the future of newspaper print. Who knows, maybe newspaper print will bite back. New technology landing in the same industry vertical doesn’t have to mean the loss of existing technology. Looks at ships, been around since someone decided to lash several logs together and there is no replacement for them in sight.

Posted by richmitch | Report as abusive

Whether any technological innovation destroys the ability of another form of media to make a living doesn’t seem nearly as important as the fact that the shear number of news sites and blogs may have destroyed the credibility of what used to be called “papers of record”.

Perhaps it was only a comforting illusion that Newspapers like the New York Times or the Times of London, could claim that they reported the facts, and actually tried to verify their sources and could be held liable for inaccuracies? At least they attempted to maintain some kind of journalistic integrity. Historians could use newspapers as, at least, one of the sources for their information.

So may websites, news blogs, news feeds etc. don’t seem to be much more than private and spurious bully pulpits for anyone with a bone to pick. Articles written and paid for by the government and that are fed to various papers also undermine their objectivity and independence. I have read articles in this paper or the NYT that state that China wants a Wall Street Journal type of business paper that the Government would insist on editing. That hardly seems like the royal road to objectivity or truth either.

The Iraq war brought us “embedded journalists” (that at least was admitted), but it also brought embedded articles. That was not so readily admitted.

The global village can be drowning in a sea of misinformation. One can even tailor make reality and listen to only those articles and sources that cater to ones preferences and prejudices. It is a form of insanity to cling to one’s point of view and to exclude any point of view that contradicts it.

The media moguls may worry about lost revenue but they should be even more concerned about massive loss of credibility. Restoring credibility may be more difficult than the problem of being able to keep sufficient numbers of reporters to do an adequate job of reporting newsworthy events accurately.

A fly has thousands of eyes but one central “processor” to synthesize that information. The Web is like a fly with billions of eyes and billions of central processors that not only don’t see the same things, but also may not ever be able to agree on the significance of what they are all seeing.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
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