Rupert Murdoch’s long crusade to make digital news pay
On the first day of one of my journalism classes, the teacher produced a large metal ring with a short rope fastened to it. The ring was made to be installed in a bull’s nose, he explained; and the rope – called a lead – let you guide him wherever you wanted. The point was clear, if somewhat condescending: Writing a good lead lets the journalist guide the reader around like cattle.
That illustration was a lot more powerful before the web, during an era when closed media like print newspapers and television limited interactivity and left consumers with no choice but to passively accept the news as presented. It doesn’t make sense on the web, where any reader can challenge news content or even become a publisher in a matter of minutes.
Rupert Murdoch still lives in a world of nose rings. The News Corp. CEO has had remarkable success in print and television, but he has stumbled again and again on the web, most notably with the great fizzle that was MySpace. Even today, the company is backing away from Project Alesia, its ambitious plan to create a digital newsstand, after other publishers showed little interest.
But as reports emerge on his latest digital venture – The Daily, a newspaper designed for tablets in general and the iPad in particular – it’s clear that Murdoch isn’t giving up on making digital news work on his terms – that is, in a tidily contained format that demands readers pay for it.
That model is working for the Wall Street Journal, more or less, because the publication is still regarded as a must read for many. But it’s not clear it will work for a publication built from scratch. Initial reactions lean toward skepticism, particularly the $50 annual subscription and the newspaper-like publishing schedule. One terse summary of the reaction: “Wonderful! Slower news — and at a higher price.”
The skeptics will be right, at least at first. After all, why should digital news follow a cable-TV revenue model, as News Corp. is predicting, when so many are canceling their cable subscriptions? But News Corp. appears to be ready for a long haul: 100 journalists have been hired for The Daily and $30 million is the reported budget for the project. There will always be a huge number of news consumers who are content to graze outside Murdoch’s walled gardens. But there may be just enough who are content to be led around by the nose to make The Daily a success.