Feb 11

A different angle on the proposed News Corp takeover of BSkyB

At a seminar on media plurality held in City University today, two knowledgeable commentators aired opinions on the vexed issue of News Corp’s bid to own 100% of BSkyB that were so different from the usual lines of argument that they deserve a wider hearing.

David Elstein, who has worked for most British broadcasting channels (including BSkyB), pointed out that the debate over the takeover was now entirely confined to Sky News, the least valuable part of the company and losing somewhere between £30m and £50m a year. The BSkyB board, he said, had already made clear that it was prepared to sacrifice – to sell or to close – the news division in order to get the rest of the deal through. In those circumstances, Elstein suggested, Rupert Murdoch could happily allow Ofcom, the regulator, to appoint the team of news executives at Sky News and make several other similar concessions to erect barriers against his interference in news. In that case, Murdoch would have no more or less influence on the editorial output than he does now, but would have secured the profit stream from the company at that relatively small price.

Elstein went one stage further and reminded his audience that news organisations are not the same as broadcasters: Independent Television News, for example, doesn’t broadcast but supplies other broadcasters. Sky News could find itself in the same position as a contract supplier of news, perhaps in Britain and certainly in continental Europe.

This got me thinking. People have talked about the possible closure of Sky News, particularly if a deal stops the cross-subsidy from BSkyB. But tens of millions of pounds have also been invested in the Sky News website. The site is one of the best of its kind in the world – often giving the larger BBC a run for its money – with a sizeable team of its own journalists, including video reporters. The chances of this being shut down, even if Sky News wasn’t broadcasting any more, are small. Almost certainly zero.

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Jan 11

Filloux on Le Monde

Anyone at all familiar with the French daily Le Monde will want to look at this trenchant takeout by Frederic Filloux, who reports that he was informally approached about whether he might be interested in the editorship. He decided not to be interested because the paper’s present mess is so bad.

If people are shying away from jobs which until quite recently they might have killed to get, things must be bad. On Filloux’s view, the new owners aren’t very smart, the consultative procedures with the staff don’t work and the paper’s internet strategy is awful.

Filloux’s account prompts three quick observations:
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Nov 10

Making eloquent mischief: Mencken, Murdoch and Dannythefink

Do you ever reach the end of the week gasping to read something counter-intuitive, counter to the trend or just mischevously subversive? I do. Writing stuff which takes you places that you don’t expect to go is one of journalism’s contributions to making better sense of the world and stuff.

Here are the pieces I read this week and which made me sit up.
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Nov 10

Berners-Lee vs Murdoch & Jobs

All seem agreed that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is set to launch an iPad-only digital “newspaper” in alliance with Apple very soon. There’s been no denial of obviously well-sourced indications about the price (99 cents or 62p a week), the editorial formula (“a tabloid sensibility with a broadsheet intelligence”) or the likely editor (Jesse Angelo of the New York Post).

No one should complain about Murdoch’s willingness to experiment. He may have come late to the web and he has made some mistakes. But he is laudably unsentimental about dumping an error once it’s clear that it is wrong. He cans the project and moves on to something else.

So I look forward to seeing this tryout. Murdoch plus Steve Jobs is a market-moving alliance by any measure. Their attempt to break the mould will test in an interesting fashion what is becoming a pivotal issue about the new public space which the web is creating.

The odd thing about the iPad-only project (apparently named the “Daily”) is that it sounds very much as if it goes directly against the grain of the web. It is perhaps the most ambitious attempt yet made to reproduce the conditions of print in a digital environment. The content won’t be on the web, only on the iPad. You can only get it by paying one way. Presumably, the content won’t link to much, or anything, else.

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Oct 10

Conrad Black lets fly

I was about to write something deadly serious about digital media when I was

Conrad Black

stopped in my tracks by this: Conrad Black’s review of three books on American newspapers. The jailed Canadian tycoon is settling a few scores.

An example: Rupert Murdoch may have an interesting career and modus operandi but, as a person, he’s pretty boring. “He is generally not overly forthcoming, rather monosyllabic, an enigma whose banter is nondescript bourgeois filler delivered in a mid-Pacific accent,” says Black. Murdoch’s discretion in the company of this gigantic, convicted blowhard is perhaps understandable.

There is more (quite a lot more) in this vein. It’s like reading pornography or the Alan Clark Diaries: you know it’s not worth wasting tme with, but you go on reading all the same. Black reveals himself, without using the expression, to be a fan of Jay Rosen’s invention to describe the overblown pomposity of Washington correspondents, the Church of the Savvy.

Sep 10

Downie vs Huffington: the parasite debate is back

Ex-Washington Post editor Len Downie came to City University last night to deliver the James Cameron lecture and inserted just one sting in the tail of his text, but a sharp one. Downie is not impressed, not impressed at all, by the Huffington Post.

The Huffposties are “parasites” he said, adding that much of the site’s “highly touted” web-traffic statistics were boosted by celebrity gossip. “They attract audiences by aggregating  journalism about special interests and opinions reflecting a predictable point of view on the left or the right of the political spectrum,  along with titillating gossip  and sex.”

This was the punch line: “It is not yet clear whether many – or any – of the aggregators will become profitable – or,  more importantly, whether  any of them will become sources of original,  credible journalism.” Downie’s lecture is in full here.

This barb triggered a cross response from the Huffington Post’s founder Arianna Huffington who defended the amount of original journalism on the site and said that they stick to “fair use” rules in giving only excerpts and links.

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Sep 10

Rupert Murdoch and the future shape of content bundles

John Gapper of the Financial Times speculates that what lies behind Rupert Murdoch’s bid for the rest of the shares he does not own in Sky TV is the enticing possibility of bundling subscriptions to broadcast and written content. Gapper’s example from the US is the bundled sale of access to Cablevision and Newsday.

That would seem to be one advantage of the bid to won Sky outright, if it succeeds. But you can take the speculation further and in a direction which has profound implications for the established newspaper titles in the News Corp empire – or in any other multi-channel news media business. (Routine declaration: I worked for The Times, owned by News Corp, until 2009).

In what we might call the second phase of digital news publishing – characterised by tablets, tailored apps and more determined efforts to control more of the value chain and customer data – there’s more than one way to change the bundles. One innovation would indeed be to sell a TV+print package. Another would be to recut and re-present material assembled together which isn’t normally seen in the bundle because it belongs in separate titles or brands.

One of the freedoms of the internet which young users in particular like is surfing across a lot of sources. Could a company like News Corp offer to subscribers a football package which allows the subscribing user access to all football material across all its properties…say coverage from The Sun, the Sunday Times and Sky, both broadcast and website?

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Jun 10

Rupert’s hymn to Steve Jobs

The low subscription price being asked as of next month for The Times and Sunday Times sets some hard tasks for the papers’ owners in the future: raising the price involves raising the value seen by the subscriber. Or so I thought. Rupert Murdoch sees the working of a paywall quite differently. Cutting people off when they don’t pay may work for cable or satellite TV, but I’m less sure that it’ll work that way for newspaper sites. But what do I know?

One of the weird things about Murdoch’s reputation is that what he actually says – on the relatively rare occasions he’s interviewed – gets little attention. So the interview detail is worth the six minutes. Highlights: the Wall Street Journal should really be called “the Main Street Journal” (a soundbite which bears all the hallmarks of the WSJ’s editor Robert Thomson), publishers should charge for “electronic distribution” (rather than for content, note), namechecks for the Wired and Scientific American sites and gushing, BP-oil-leak-style praise for Steve Jobs.