Is Rupert Murdoch planning to launch a search engine?

Rupert Murdoch, the driving force behind global media conglomerate News Corp, is not a man who minces his words. So, when he accuses search engines like Google and Yahoo as being ‘content kleptomaniacs‘ at the World Media Summit, I immediately wonder what he’s got up his sleeve.

This is, after all, a man who introduced electronic newspaper production in the 1980s in the teeth of opposition from the print unions, and someone who has actually welcomed the future demise of printed editions in favour of portable electronic devices: "…we’re going to have no paper, no printing plants, no unions. It’s going to be great."

Making search engines pay

Rupert Murdoch’s present stance is that search engines should pay his publications for the content they index and aggregate in services like Google News, largely because he doesn’t see why they should earn advertising revenue on his content.

This is, in my opinion, a bluff. After all, if Murdoch really wanted Google, Yahoo, Bing et al to stop indexing websites belonging to – say – The Times, The Sun, The Australian, The New York Post and The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, then he could get one of his web experts to add a few lines of code into each site’s robots.txt file. The nuisance would stop immediately.

Quality content

So what’s Murdoch really up to? I think the best way to make an educated guess is to look at how his media empire has been conducting itself over recent years. Even a glance at his UK operations and the state of the domestic newspaper market shows that the game has been afoot for some time.

If you’d asked me about the newspapers I read a few years ago, I could have given you a fairly straightforward answer. As late as 2005, I was reading the Guardian almost daily (had done for 15 years), regularly buying the Times and the Telegraph (seeing at least one edition of each per week), and getting the Sun when I knew there was a good scoop in it. The only papers I never bought were the Mail and the Express. Especially not the Express. Amongst other current affairs publications I would get Private Eye and The Spectator.

Then I started getting more and more of my news online, and decided to drop the daily newspaper habit. I still get Private Eye and the Spectator from the newsstands, but if I do buy a daily newspaper I’ll generally nab a copy of the Times.

That’s made me wonder what happened to my long-standing brand loyalty to the Guardian. Why don’t I buy that on the rare occasions I now get a paper?

Leaving aside the usual gags about getting more right wing as you get older, I think the fundamental answer is that Murdoch’s Times has invested heavily in good content, whilst the Guardian has invested heavily in trying to appear more interesting and groundbreaking than it actually is. As a result, the Times has improved considerably – poaching a lot of the Guardian’s (and other newspapers’) best columnists along the way. The Guardian has got a tidy format, many acres of dullness, a few fertile strips of delusion, and a lot less zing, zap and panache than it had at the turn of the decade, when Francis Wheen was in G2, Matthew Norman was having anarchic fun on the Diary and Simon Hoggart was doing a peerless Parliamentary sketch (he still does, but I read that online. For free).

Net result, the Guardian is leaching readers at a faster rate than the Times – but both are suffering from circulation drops.

The strategy’s not for printing

Which brings the Murdoch strategy into focus. He lost about £2 billion last year. Why is he investing so heavily in good content for his print editions? If the newspaper market is contracting, it’s only going to be a short-term fix.
 
As you may know, Murdoch has convinced other publishers the way forward is to lock their content behind a pay-wall. This is fine, and I think wise, but people need a way of finding what’s behind the barricades.

At the moment, this is where Google, Yahoo, Bing etc come in – they index the news sites, pull the material together in places like Google News, and make a considerable amount of advertising revenue out of the process.
 
It’s also why Murdoch has got to get as many rival news outlets to follow his lead. If only Murdoch’s titles went behind a pay-wall, then Google et al could relax – they’d just carry on indexing all the rival papers and Murdoch would lose readers and subscriptions.

A Murdoch search engine?

But, if Murdoch gets all the best global news outlets behind a pay-wall, they can collectively tell the search engines to get stuffed.

There’s still a problem, though. Because readers have got used to cherry picking from news titles across the world (I love the fact I can trawl newspapers in the UK, US, Australia, South Africa, NZ, Ireland, Singapore, France etc etc), brand loyalty is only going to go so far. I might, if there were no other option, get a subscription to the Times. But there’s no way I’m paying for additional subs for the Washington Post, New York Times, Sydney Herald etc etc.

That’s why I suspect Murdoch’s longer-term strategy is to get quality, paid news providers to opt out of Google and Yahoo and to set up their own search/ directory portal – perhaps a higher quality version of today’s Google News. That way, Murdoch will be leading a movement that:

a) starves Google and other search engines of content
b) brings back third party advertising revenue into the portal in which Murdoch has a stake
c) creates a new search USP – quality (ie, subscribe to us because you’ve no way of knowing what rubbish you’re getting via Google)
d) allows subscriptions to be ploughed back into journalism
e) gives the news outlets a strong online citadel, from which to expand into other online operations.

Of course, it’s all speculation. But however it does pan out, decent news content is rarely going to be free in the future. The job now is to make online news generate money for the people who create it, rather than the search engines that distribute it at little cost to themselves.

And what better way to do that than with your own search engine?