Archive for the ‘Murdoch’ tag
This post was first published on Left Foot Forward on March 4th 2011
The stable door had been open for a good while before News Corporation tabled its bid for the 61 per cent of BSkyB it did not already own. News Corp already had a significant amount of power within the UK media and, on the face of it, increasing its stake in the satellite broadcaster seemed to consolidate rather than extend this power.
It achieved this position gradually, over the course of the few decades, and within the parameters of existing media regulation.
So by the time it tabled a bid last summer, given the regulatory framework that existed, there was only ever likely to be one outcome. This was made more likely still when the European Commission said in December that “it was confident this merger will not weaken competition in the United Kingdom”.
It is unlikely that, had the bid been referred to the Competition Commission, it would have come to a different conclusion.
Ofcom admitted the limitations of existing regulation in its recommendation to the Secretary of State in January:
“The future market developments explored in this report suggest that the current statutory framework may no longer be equipped to achieve Parliament’s policy objective of ensuring sufficient plurality of media ownership.”
As a result, we can now look forward to a media near-duopoly in the UK – News Corp and the BBC. Not a great outcome for those who care about media plurality. The one positive repercussion – if one is looking for any positives from this decision – is that it will be an awful lot harder in future to shrink the BBC in such a Murdoch-dominated media world.
The law may now be changed – belatedly – to address the limitations Ofcom identified (though don’t hold your breath); meanwhile, the News Corp horse has galloped into the distance.
This post was first published on LeftFootForward on January 26th 2011
There is a moment in The King’s Speech, just nominated for 12 Oscars, in which George V loses patience with his son’s stutter and yells at him to get his words out.
BSkyB has similarly lost patience with the process for deciding whether News Corporation be allowed to buy the 61 per cent of Sky it does not currently own. It has yelled at Ofcom (or the equivalent – a vitriolic letter), accusing the independent media regulator of distorting its brief, ‘using unreliable metrics’, and ‘making questionable judgments’ such that ‘its conclusions are flawed’. And this is the ‘non-confidential version’. One wonders how much ruder the confidential one was.
Are there any grounds to justify Sky’s attack?
Back in November 2010 Ofcom was asked, by the business secretary, to investigate whether News Corp’s bid for Sky raised enough questions about the future plurality of news provision to warrant passing it on to the Competition Commission.
In order to be passed on it had to pass a pretty low threshold. It simply had to assess whether the takeover would reduce the number of providers and hold a reasonable belief ‘that the proposed acquisition may operate or be expected to operate against the public interest’.
On the first, the answer was easy to calculate. At the retail level (i.e. news consumed directly by the public) the number of organisations will fall from 16 to 15. At the wholesale level (e.g. Sky providing news for commercial radio stations) the number will fall from 11 to 10.
On the second Ofcom inevitably had to take a more qualitative approach, although it has done its best to use quantitative methods to make it. It tries to work out the relative ability of different news organisations to influence and inform public opinion, based on the amount of news people consume from different outlets.
Using this approach it calculates that, for example, were the merger to go through, News Corp’s wholesale news reach as a percentage of regular news consumers would increase from 32% to 51%.
Therefore on both these criteria Ofcom found that the public would have less choice of news provider. Given such an assessment it is difficult to see how Ofcom could have done anything other than advise Jeremy Hunt to refer the bid to the Competition Commission.
Arguments about paywalls around news content are becoming increasingly dogmatic and ideological. As a result, lots of sensible ideas about how to make money from new models of journalism are being obscured. Not least, how to add value to existing content so it becomes more identifiable, more searchable, and helps lead people ‘back home’ (that’s where the Hansel and Gretel theory comes in).
On one side of the fence you have pro-paywallers, led by the Murdochs, for whom paywalls seem to answer the question, ‘how are we going to solve the economic crisis in news?’. They’re in the process of trying to convince a great swathe of big news organizations to stop providing their content free at the point of delivery. By doing this, the theory goes, they will enhance the value of news content by reviving scarcity and convince a new generation to start paying for news. The ‘freeniacs are wrong’ writes Nicholas Carr, ‘Charging people for news, even online, is by no means an impossible dream’.
On the other side you have the anti-paywallers, led by a growing and increasingly coherent group of technologists, liberal educationalists, and bloggers for whom paywalls represent a complete misunderstanding of the new era of information abundance. To them, the construction of paywalls is a frantic attempt to recover a 20th century era of constrained media by a generation that ‘just doesn’t get it’. Building paywalls is ‘desperate stuff’, writes Stephen Foley, ‘It won’t work, and if newspaper executives on both sides of the Atlantic follow Mr Murdoch’s apparent lead, I predict we will witness the collective suicide of scores of news organisations in the US and elsewhere’.
Both sides are becoming more and more trenchant in their beliefs and ramping up the rhetoric. But, as with the fight between the Big-Endians and Little-Endians in Gulliver’s Travels (about which end to crack open your egg), this ideological dogmatism is distracting us from the more difficult questions. And it doesn’t get us much closer to working out long term ways in which to enable journalism to pay for itself.
The pro-paywallers need to acknowledge that paywalls are not the Holy Grail that will solve all their economic woes. They should listen to polls – like the PaidContent Harris poll this week – indicating that most people would leave their favourite news site if it started charging , in favour of a free site elsewhere on the web. They should accept that it will not be possible to close the digital Pandora’s Box that is the internet and recreate the constrained published content environment of the twentieth century.
The anti-paywallers should concede that there will be areas of content where paywalls work. Paywalls do not have to cordon off all – or even the majority – of information on a site. The Racing Post has a smart and sustainable hybrid strategy of offering significant amounts of content free, and only charging for that which it knows its readers highly value (as reported in the Independent earlier this week). For £7.50 a month members get a horse racing TV channel streamed live to their computer (for which 3,000 people signed up in the first week). For £9.50 a month members can receive a ‘premium tipping service’ and for £199.95 a year they can get ‘ultimate membership’ with access to tips, races and the Racing Post database. Equally, the antis should acknowledge that journalism – as we’ve grown to understand it – is far from free to produce.
Mired in ideological silos, the pro and anti-paywallers are also missing some of the most important aspects of the debate. How do you add value to the content itself such that people will be more willing to pay for it? A question made more urgent for the Murdoch camp by the fact that most content becomes ‘invisible’ as soon as it goes behind a paywall.
Here’s where my Hansel and Gretel theory comes in. For those that don’t remember the Grimm fairy tale it goes something like this. Woodcutter’s wife convinces woodcutter they can’t afford to feed the children. Woodcutter therefore dumps children in the forest. But clever children find their way back by leaving a trail of pebbles. So woodcutter dumps them in forest again. This time, with only a breadcrumb trail, they can’t get home. They then get imprisoned in a gingerbread house by an old witch and… you can read the rest here.
News stories have been, up till now, a little like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. Spread by news organizations round the web, they quickly attract an audience, but that audience gobbles them up and rarely follows the breadcrumbs back home. What if, instead of breadcrumbs, journalists and news organizations dropped pebbles? That way people wouldn’t eat them and there would be more chance they could lead them back home.
The difference between a breadcrumb story and a pebble story is metadata. Embed some good consistent metadata in a story and it turns something ephemeral into something much more solid. People suddenly know, for example, where it came from. A story can have the equivalent of an address and a zip code built into it, so people follow it back – by whatever trail they want.
Metadata has the significant added benefits that it is visible and malleable. It can be identified and picked up by search engines and aggregators. It can then be displayed such that people have enough information to know if they want more. A little like seeing the front page headlines on the news stand before deciding to put your hand in your pocket for some change. It can also be used for cross referencing stories, for digging through the archive, for building mash-ups.
Google has an example of how, using metadata, it can display more information about a site in its ‘search snippets’. Similarly, we (the Media Standards Trust) have been working out how to best integrate metadata in news through our Knight / MacArthur Transparency Initiative.
The ‘great paywall debate’ is not going to end anytime soon – but needs to be a little less polarized than it has been to date. Working out how to leaving a trail of pebbles would be a good start.