Last year we wrote about News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson's weird anti-Google rant
that seemed quite devoid of facts. It was a odd amalgamation of conspiracy theory and outright falsehoods that fit more in the realm of an angry internet troll, rather than the CEO of a media conglomerate. Apparently, Thomson has continued to let these beliefs fester and has once again gone off on Google and other companies much more successful on the internet in a confused and rambling speech in Australia
. The talk, focused on the future of the media industry, starts off with a philosophical discussion about China before jumping into an attack on the internet, which begins mildly enough with some digs at internet companies:
Media companies, too, are looking for their bearings. Here we are in the age of the GPS, of relentless, endless tracking and precisely precise data, and yet some in media are wandering aimlessly, dazed and confused, without coordinates and slouching towards oblivion. We are living in the decade of content distribution, which is not necessarily good for the act of creation. For journalists and newspapers are creationists, not in the biblical sense, but in the creative sense – I am fortunate to be a custodian in a company that invests in thousands of creative acts around the world each day, great journalism, compelling analysis, feisty blogs, captivating videos and brilliant books, fiction and non-fiction. The question for this creationist is whether my views are anti-evolutionary or anti e-evolution – already a bit backward and sliding ever more so.
For the distributionists do indeed have powerful distribution channels, Google and Facebook, and pretenders like LinkedIn, which is spam central. None of them actually create content, and they certainly have little intention of paying for it, but they do redistribute the content created by others – they would argue that such redistribution is a natural extension of their role as social networks. I would argue that much of the redistribution is an unnatural act. But there are broader issues that are still unfolding for media companies, who are themselves struggling to profit from their news and other content, while the distributionists are helping themselves to that content, coopting and corralling audiences and consciously devaluing brands. The supposed idealism of these companies is in stark contrast to their actual behavior. That Google’s newly conceived parent company is to be called Alphabet has itself created a range of delicious permutations: A is for Avarice, B is for Bowdlerize, through to K for Kleptocracy, P for Piracy and Z for Zealotry.
Of course, this gets pretty much everything wrong. They're not distributors
, they tend to be marketing vehicles
. And there are all sorts of things that are just silly about this. After all, News Corp. itself has a rather long history of building or buying its own aggregation tools
that tend to be a lot more aggressive
than the Googles or Facebooks of the world. Oh, but nearly all of News Corp.'s attempts have flopped
The reality, it seems, is that Thomson is jealous that Google and Facebook have succeeded in building services that people find useful
, whereas News Corp. has failed. So he lashes out claiming that they're "pirating" or "stealing" content, and "redistributing" it. But that's not what's happening at all. Google is a search engine
, it's helping people find more content. And, as a recent study in Spain showed, when Google News pulled out
the news industry, rather than helped it. It took away traffic and hurt ad revenue.
What kind of person slams a company that increases
his company's revenue and increases
his company's visibility?
Apparently, the chief exec of News Corp., Robert Thomson.
All of this seems to stem from a simple bit of (willful?) misunderstanding. Thomson keeps claiming that Google and Facebook are somehow "distributing" News Corp. content. But they're not. They're helping people promote
it or find
it. And they're very successful at doing so, and that's the real problem. Thomson is jealous of their success.
It should be reassuring for news organisations that the distributors have suddenly started to realize that the quality of content is important, particularly as they try to build walled gardens – though it should be noted that the Chinese discovered that even a Great Wall didn’t work. The spammers at LinkedIn discovered that CVs are only burnished occasionally and anyone who tweaks their CV a few times a week is probably not worth hiring. Anyway, they now see themselves as a news distributor, and news organizations who cozy up too closely to them are guilty of techno trendiness. It is patently important to be aware of the trends but a grievous sin to be too trendy.
Whatever you might think of Linkedin or its recent strong push into being a content platform, this seems like a weirdly inappropriate insult for a major media company boss to be making. First of all, I think most hiring managers would strongly disagree with Thomson's suggestion that Linkedin isn't useful as a tool for hiring people. These days it's one of the first places people go. Is Thomson so out of touch that he doesn't realize this?
And we are entering a new phase of development by the big distribution networks, a phase in which they are not only appropriating content but deciding what content is appropriate and inappropriate. They are appointing editors not to create but to curate. And these curators tend to have a certain mindset, a deep fondness for political correctness, and a tendency to be intolerant of ideological infractions. Silicon Valley is moving from the PC to being a purveyor of the PC.
Huh? First off, anyone looking at this with any sense of reality would note that News Corp. has a much longer history of acting as a gatekeeper, greatly limiting what content it feels is "appropriate" for people to see. Google and Facebook are quite different, opening up a much broader sense of content to the world. Are there reasonable concerns about algorithms choosing what content you see and things like a "filter bubble"? Sure. Absolutely. But comparing that to News Corp.
of all places doesn't make News Corp. look very good. Remember, this is the same company who turned the tag line "fair & balanced" into a punchline. For the CEO of that
company to argue that Google and Facebook are somehow curating content in one direction is... well... ironic.
Of course, what it really comes down to is the fact that Thomson doesn't like the political sensibilities
of the people who run these tech companies:
This transition is already underway. The stream of content is often a flow of soft-left sensibility, a stream of content consciousness in which genuine debate is in danger of drowning and alternative views rarely surface. This profound movement is taking place, and without much serious discussion of the social consequences.
Newspapers have always been a little unruly, but they are characterised by public debate, wrangling, haggling, arguing, sometimes passionately about issues and consequences, about the impact on societies and on people. The philosophy, the point of great newspapers is clear. But now we have the exponential growth of purportedly neutral platforms built by e-elites that will be far from neutral, far from objective, succumbing to a stultifyingly samey subjectivity and sensibility.
Again, remember that this is all coming from News Corp.
. If he really feels this way, why not just build a competing platform that has News Corp.s' political "sensibilities." After all, isn't that what the company did with Fox News? Why not do that online and see how it works? That's what's nice about the internet. Anyone can build anything and see if it works.
After some more whining about how those darn "lefties" are running Silicon Valley, he goes back to attacking Google over "intellectual property" issues that he doesn't seem to understand.
More relevant to our discussion is the digital divot; the deficit in reporting resources created by the egregious aggregation of news by distributors for whom provenance is an inconvenience and who are contemptuous of copyright. The words Intellectual Property don’t appear in the Google alphabet. Without proper recognition, without proper remuneration, well-resourced reporting will be ever more challenged. When I arrived in Beijing, many a US newspaper had China correspondents – now some of those papers no longer exist in printed form.
Mismanagement played a role, as did journalistic hubris, but the digital age has been hostile to investment in reporters and reporting. Why pay professionals when you have UGC, user-generated content? And why pay when you can purloin?
Except, again, none of that is accurate. Google, for one, seems to bend over backwards going above and beyond what's required by law to appease Hollywood and firms like News Corp., only to find them still wanting more or plotting against Google. And, it's funny that this speech comes the very same week that Comcast plowed $200 million
into Vox Media at a $1 billion valuation and Buzzfeed's financials leaked
showing a healthy, growing business that's investing heavily in editorial.
In other words: it appears that online reporting is actually doing pretty damn well in certain areas -- just not those where News Corp. is acting -- once again highlighting the company's long history of driving internet properties into the ground.
Also, we'll mention (yet again) the study in Spain, noting that Google was helping
news publishers make more money and get a larger audience by promoting
stories for free
. It takes quite a bit of confusion to spin that as being "hostile to investment in reporters and investing."
It's just factually wrong.
If this is the visionary running News Corp. and planning for its future, it seems like News Corp. is heading in the wrong direction.