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Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
Nov 09

The Planned Obsolescence of the Wall Street Journal

Nicholas Ludlum

by Nicholas Ludlum
Category: Media

I make it a rule not to disagree with billionaires but Rupert Murdoch’s apparent plan to make News Corp sites invisible to search engines is mystifying.

The media industry isn’t dying; it’s changing, and while it undergoes this metamorphosis there will continue to be a lot of hand wringing, a lot of failed experiments and a lot of creative destruction.  This is a bad thing, obviously, for those employees and companies that are left out in the cold, but journalism will survive and professional news gatherers will continue to be paid – even if we don’t precisely know how (though I suspect some pay walls will work).

So things are changing and we don’t know who’s going to end up on top. It’s only natural that publishers would experiment and it’s absolutely natural that they would turn their ire on search engines (Google, principally) that seem to be responsible for putting their business in jeopardy.

But making your content invisible to search engines? Murdoch rationalizes this by saying: “What’s the point of having someone coming occasionally?” and “If they’re just search people… They don’t suddenly become loyal readers.”

Why indeed? And while we’re at it, why sell first year subscriptions at deep discounts? Why sell single issues at newsstands or in bookstores?

Perhaps the misunderstanding stems from the use of the phrase “search people” as if we were a class or a generation. Search people aren’t a slice of the population or a demographic, they’re people, as in: people-people, as in: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and the investment banker, the lawyer, and the day trader.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, search engines are everyone’s gateway to the Internet making them, by default, the gateway to the content, all the content, found therein. To be sure, today’s dedicated readers will probably continue to be dedicated readers – those that currently pay, anyway – but what about the (hoped-for) readers of tomorrow? They’re to become dedicated readers how?

That’s only part of the problem, however. The larger issue is one of relevance. Its one thing to institute a pay wall, readers can decide based on headlines, first paragraphs or third party commentary whether an article is worth a micropayment.  But removing something from search engines is, almost by definition, synonymous with removing it from the Internet itself.  How can you be part of a discussion, part of a community of interest if no one can find you or if the barriers to interacting with you are so cumbersome (Murdoch also seems to indicate a coming wave of fair use lawsuits targeting, presumably, blogs)?

Murdoch wants his readers on his terms but the Internet doesn’t work that way. News – but not journalism – is basically free and plentiful.  Journalism has a low, and lowering, barrier to entry. Asking people to pay for your content, find your content without the benefit of search engines, and continue to read your content as it stands roped off from the rest of community is asking too much.

Or so I believe. I could be wrong. I’m no billionaire. Maybe rendering the Wall Street Journal obsolete is part of some master plan to reinvent the media business through Seppuku.

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