The web shone like gold a decade ago but it’s turned out, in many cases, to be fool’s gold.
The companies making money out of the Internet right now are the parasitical Google and the low-walled gardens such as Facebook, but hasn’t stopped Rubert Murdoch from attempting something almost nobody thinks he can pull off - getting people to pay for access to his online newspapers.
Should we be applauding his bravery or amused that he hasn’t realised how the world has changed? Murdoch will know that site traffic and readership will plunge after the changes, but reasons that it is better to have the 5 percent paying something than 100 percent paying nothing if it gives News International a rational business model.
I tend to think that the first big problem is the whole concept of a website, which was invented as an information-expanding tool for computers, not as a way to push news and content. True, the web offers video and hyperlinking, but that is often part of the problem. Video suggests something more like TV, and hyperlinking can be a huge distraction that starts to warp the way people read and the amount of time they devote to any one story. The experience is not reflective or passive.
A decade and a half after its popularity exploded, the web also lacks the one thing that makes millions of people persist in buying a newspaper - it is not portable. Rupert Murdoch is right to ask for money in return for content, but he is selling people something they are just not at ease with.
The portable Internet - or digital content in portable form if you like - is the next hype horizon, but the failure of the publishing industry is that it has taken this long to realise it. As it is they’ve turned up to the launch party without much to say beyond mumbled prayers that users take to new devices such as eBook readers and perhaps the Apple iPad and that these will magically make it possible to buy digital newspapers for more than clicks.
Newspaper and magazine proprietors claim they are forging ahead with all this, but in truth they are doing so with some panic. Newspaper sales in the US and UK are in serious long-term decline. What choices do they have?
(a) Stick with newsprint as that model dies on its feet. Everyone knows it costs too much.
(b) Try and get money for websites and risk watching your brand die on its feet. It’s cheaper but feels cheaper too.
(c) Reinvent the whole thing in some as-yet unspecified portable digital form. That is cheaper, but has a feelgood element. Unfortunately, it has yet to be invented, no matter what publishing companies say about behind-the-scenes developments.
Here’s the thing that would keep me awake at night if I were Rupert Murdoch. The newspaper is plugging a financial gap with an inadequate technology, the webzine, pinning its hopes on an immature technology being dreamt up by people in Silicon Valley.
And that’s the rub. All of this depends on ‘those guys’ getting a cut from these dreams. Look at Steve Jobs rolling in it as developers flock to his tightly-controlled iPhone, the digital Trojan that could yet start a radical restructuring of the independent software industry in Apple and Google’s image.
The one thing as bad as having no readers is having more readers who are are suddenly partly-controlled by someone else making money out of them. The problem with all this talk of magical devices such as the iPad or whatever the techies come up with is publishers could go from offering partners a cut to being offered a cut. You can see it happening and with the iPad about to enter circulation about now perhaps it is just too late.
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