Murdoch’s Capitulation

Too many articles from Germany have been brought up for discussion lately in this forum, I know. But I still want to briefly discuss the treatment by Thierry Chervel of Rupert Murdoch’s recent announcement that people will soon have to pay for access to his on-line journalistic properties. (And that treatment is to be found on the website – German for “pearl-diver” – that isn’t even any recognized newspaper but rather just an on-line “culture magazine”!)

Right then, Murdoch has announced he will be putting his properties’ content behind a pay-wall soon, and the New York Times is reportedly considering the same thing. You can cut to the chase and read Chervel’s summing-up of his reaction in a paragraph at the mid-point of his piece: “A few years ago the withdrawal of newspapers from the free Net would still have been painful, today one would miss a few sources, but the Internet has also developed sources and formats that would quickly compensate for that loss.”

He cites the New York Times and the Guardian as the best newspapers currently around. Why? Because they have so successfully woven together what’s on paper and what’s on-line. For example, you can read the Times’ review of a particular book in the paper edition, and then go on-line to read the free extract from that work itself (and then of course click on over to Amazon to purchase it, if you desire). Chervel is particularly enamored of the Times’ “Lede” news blog, which did in fact distinguish itself covering the Iranian civil demonstrations back in the second half of June.

If your success has so much to do with your integration with the Internet, then naturally cutting that integration off with a pay-wall is not the smartest move. Especially since all newspapers – including those two top-in-class he mentions – will have an increasingly-hard time simply retaining their relevance in a world where, if you read something on paper, chances are you already read about it on-line two days ago. Chervel:

Those who want to know Twitter’s strategy for going against Google will today read TechCrunch, Mashable, or Ars Technica. Those who want to know who bungled in what show will click on the video at Gawker. Those who want to know what the new hit of their favorite band sounds like subscribe to the corresponding service on or wait for the link from their Facebook or Studi-VZ buddies. [Studi-VZ is essentially Germany’s Facebook for students.] And à propos public opinion: Was there not recently a petition launched on the Internet at sites like, that also caught our newspapers on the wrong foot?

Related to the muddle in which newspaper executives seem to find themselves when it comes to what really makes their papers stand out these days is their apparent delusion that content has to be made to pay because, after all, newspapers are all about content. Not true, according to Chervel; newspapers have rather always been carriers of advertisements, particularly classified advertisements, and any “content” has only ever been there to entice eyeballs for those ads to pick up the newspaper in the first place. Back in the golden age of newspapers (up until ten or fifteen years ago), they ruled their respective urban areas in mono- or duopolies and could easily overcharge for advertising – there was no other place for the advertiser to go, at least for print! But now technology has taken those cozy arrangements away, and it seems the publishers have simply reacted to this too late.

Murdoch Brought Up the Point – and Now Withdraws It

In the end, Chervel’s piece is entitled Rupert Murdoch – The capitulation. That’s a strong word to apply to such a tough customer as Murdoch. Nonetheless, it probably can be taken to be accurate, if only from his own words – namely from a speech of his from 2005, in which he asked “What can we do – we, a bunch of digital immigrants – to be relevant for the digital generation?” This was back when Murdoch was still trying to figure out how to use what he called “a great new partner – the Internet” to better reach readers.

Now it seems he’s not trying to do that anymore; in fact he has given up. He is desperately trying to scramble back to the old status quo, because he could never find an answer to that question he himself posed four years ago.

(A footnote here, if anyone is interested – as I was – in the comments Chervel provided in this piece that were specific to German newspapers. He maintains that German newspapers have always been very stingy in the amount of content they put on-line. Only the Süddeutsche Zeitung, out of Munich, once let loose enough to create a top-quality site with international ambitions – I must have missed this back whenever it occurred – but then they changed their mind and drew everything back behind a pay-wall. As a result of all this, the German newspapers are not staring extinction so much in the face as other papers are, namely because their readers – and I’m picking up what I take to be his implied argument – never had the chance to get used to much free content, and therefore to cultivate an “I won’t pay!” attitude, in the first place.

This is all extremely interesting to me, since I generally find German newspapers (certainly including the Süddeutsche Zeitung) to be quite sufficiently open in the content they provide to find enough material for this weblog. Indeed, as I mention at the very top, I have a slight feeling I have been overdoing German material lately. But since I generally do not have access to the paper editions – not really interested, actually – it is at the same time impossible for me to form an accurate comparison and evaluation of what those newspapers are willing to put on-line and what they keep in their paper editions only.)

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