Heritage media: Can they really be that ignorant?

Heritage media: Can they really be that ignorant?

Those in charge of heritage media again revealed today how little they understand the internet and that they are unwilling to adapt. At least, that’s how it would appear on the face of it.

News.com.au reported on the speech by APN News & Media chief executive Brendan Hopkins at the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association conference (PANPA). The glee with which the speech was reported by News Ltd sites was not entirely unsurprising, given their recent push to begin charging for content on their websites.

Hopkins told the conference:

We don’t need to be reborn, we just need to be paid properly for what we do.

…thereby clearly setting out a protectionist agenda, hanging onto the old model rather than adapting to a new one. It echoes similar recent speeches by Rupert Murdoch, his son James and other newspaper heavyweights with more ink than digital awareness in their veins. The quote roughly translates to “We don’t need to change. Everybody else needs to change! The internet needs to change!”

Most of the venom was saved up for the search engines.

To use an analogy, I see search engines as breaking into our homes, itemising the contents, walking out and listing everything for everyone to see. And they get money out of that process.

The analogy of search engines “breaking into homes and stealing content” is as misguided a comment as I’ve ever heard from someone whose business future relies on this digital space. Search engines are no more stealing content than the newsagent who also makes money by providing a channel for consumers to access newspapers. The search engines – just like the newsagents – are the distribution model any publication needs. They aren’t copying information. They aren’t stealing content. They are providing links directly to the news sites by assisting the readers to find the newspaper stories they want to read.

The most the search engines ever reproduce is about a paragraph of text as an extract to provide context to the link. Yet, even the content of this paragraph is under the control of the webpage in question – if the owners ever spent five minutes reading how search engines gather information.

If the newspaper companies really don’t want Google or Yahoo or any other search engine to make money off providing a free distribution service for their content, they should get their webmaster to add a robots.txt file to each page of the website. This would prevent the search engines from crawling the pages and remove them from the indices. Their content will no longer appear in Google or Yahoo or whoever else has got their goat up by daring to point interested readers to their ungrateful website. Simple. It’s the newspaper proprietor’s choice to let them in or lock them out – to follow the terrible analogy.

Another comment leapt out as particularly daft.

Industry group The Newspaper Works, which is chaired by Mr Hopkins, is seeking talks with search providers on the issue.

A recent agreement between YouTube and the music industry, which will see YouTube owner Google pay the Performing Rights Society for use of music videos, provides a blueprint for those talks, Mr Hopkins said.

I think I know why the talks with the search providers haven’t happened yet. They need to stop laughing first.

YouTube does not serve as a directory of content extracts and links – the content is reproduced and contained complete within the site. Unlike search engines, a music video on YouTube doesn’t give you a couple of bars of the latest hit before providing a link to the record company website to view the song in its entirety. As the music content is viewed completely within YouTube, without any flow of traffic to the content producer, it is only right that an arrangement be made to share any revenue created by that content.

But search engines do not reproduce complete content! I think that needs repeating. Search engines are not content providers! They are merely the directory for users to find content on the sites run by the original content providers. It’s like refusing to list your business in the Yellow Pages because you don’t want them to make money off your business details.

But is any news boss idiotic enough to switch off one of the website’s primary sources of traffic? Of course not! So what’s really going on here?

They can’t be THAT stupid

I’m not convinced that these newspaper bosses are that ignorant about how the world works. They have legions of talented people below them in their digital divisions who would know how search engines work and how important they are to any business model. They must know that the YouTube argument is a straw man. There must be internal data that shows how important the search engines are to their bottom line in driving traffic to their ad-filled pages. The fact those ad-filled pages are not producing a suitable revenue model is not the fault of the search engines that have certainly done their bit.

So why this continual hammering away with an argument they know to be flawed?

I don’t think this is about getting the search engines to change. I don’t think these speeches are directed at the newspaper men in the room (who would all be aware of the same flaws in the logic) or those IT news services that flock to report on such things. I think these comments are aimed purely at the readers of News.com.au and related sites. They’re designed to be reported on those same papers. They are a deliberate attempt to muddy the facts so that readers see some justification in the move towards monetising online news content. It’s propaganda.

This is a public relations battle, not a technological one. It doesn’t matter how search engines work or how classified ads will never be the same again if the wider public feels there is a case to answer. This is, pure and simple, an attempt to convince their readers that it is reasonable to charge. Reality doesn’t matter if public perception believes something else to be true. If sentiment shifts even slightly in their favour, it will make the job of bringing in a paywall that much easier.

These speeches are aimed at those readers who don’t understand search engine technology, indexing, spiders, link strategies, advertising models and online content distribution. For it is with those readers that the battle over paid news content will be fought.

Then again – what do I know? I’m just one of those plagiarising, inaccurate, uninformed bloggers John Hartigan (CEO of News Ltd – I’ll leave you to join the dots) criticised so venomously back in July.

In return for their free content, we pretty much get what we’ve paid
for – something of such limited intellectual value as to be barely
discernible from massive ignorance

If it’s ignorance you’re looking for, the News Ltd approach to search engines has it covered.