As I write this, I have an online transcript of Rupert Murdoch’s recent speech open before me. It’s an interesting development, Murdoch’s “digital age”, because it’s both an exciting prospect and a great challenge to those of us who, like me, have been critical of Murdoch’s self-confessed failure to “do as much as I should have” to embrace new media in recent years.
It’s a challenge because we now see one of the largest and most aggressive competitors in the media world moving into an area that previously, by his own admission, Murdoch thought would “just limp along”. That makes anyone who raises an alternative voice fearful of being either bought out by a larger player (as Crikey! has recently been) or starved of the revenues needed to continue. Many newspapers have suffered at least one of those fates at Murdoch’s hands.
But it’s also exciting because it raises the prospect of very significant capital being thrown at developing the most effective and efficient means of new media publishing - and we all can learn from what emerges. If Murdoch has demonstrated anything over the years, it’s an ability to run very tight and well-directed organisations.
When On Line Opinion was started (five years ago apparently - is it really that long?) it was with the clearly-articulated belief that a gap existed in the media market because “old media” organisations, even those who seemed to embrace the capabilities of the Internet, were not delivering what the general public wanted. It’s no secret that readership and viewership of newspapers and broadcast news have been in decline for a very long time. While some researchers trace this decline to about 1922, the American Society of Newspaper Editors has made a concerted effort to address the problem since the early 70s, when it came to realise that growth in overall readership figures was masking a continual decline in per-capita readership.
Many academics have argued that Murdoch’s efforts to refine and continue Lord Northcliffe’s tabloid doctrine and “daily hate” as devices to raise circulations are, at least in part, responsible for the long-term decline. The thesis goes that the “dumbing-down” of newspapers, and public communication in general, has made them less relevant to readers and more frequently an object of derision, leading to short-term occasional gains overridden by long-term decline. Murdoch appears to acknowledge this idea in his speech when he refers to the newspaper industry as “remarkably, unaccountably complacent”.
It was with at least the distant twinkle of this meme that the Internet was, somewhat Pyrrhically, hailed as the saviour of independent thought, rational debate and an informed populus - at least, before the dot-com crash. With many of the barriers to production and distribution seemingly reduced, if not obliterated, anyone could become a publisher and have their say, report what they believed important, or hold forth on whatever topic they chose.
And from a publishing point of view, this is indeed what seems, increasingly, to be happening. The “blogoshere” - especially John Quiggin’s beloved political blogs, or “plogs” - has an ever-growing veracity and constituency: 8 million American adults say they have created blogs; blog readership jumped 58 per cent in 2004 and now (January 2005) stands at 27 per cent of Internet users; 5 per cent of Internet users say they use RSS aggregators or XML readers to get the news and other information delivered from blogs and content-rich Web sites as it is posted online; and 12 per cent of Internet users have posted comments or other material on blogs.
Bloggers have been credited (or discredited, depending on your perspective) with unearthing the Monica Lewinsky Affair and revealing the unreliability of the documents relied upon by Dan Rather, among other feats.
But are they as influential as the hype suggests? According to Pew Internet, while blog readership stands at 27 per cent of Internet users, this is less than the percentage who “play online games” (32 per cent), “listen to music online” (34 per cent), “check sports scores or info” (43 per cent) or “look for info on a hobby or interest” (77 per cent) - and “62 per cent of Internet users do not know what a blog is”.
Daniel Donahoo has already argued here in On Line Opinion that while some blogs are certainly having an impact, most publish guff and are abandoned shortly after they start. A Perseus survey found that just over two-thirds of blogs were declared “dead” after having no posts for two months, and 40 per cent of those were “one-day wonders”.
The reason for this is the part of the publishing equation that is rarely mentioned when the utopian vision of a ground-swell of media alternatives is thrown about - having something worthwhile to say. While Quiggin, Instapundit and the select few other well-known bloggers may well have plenty to say that is interesting, most do not, and even those who do usually rely on third-party sources for the raw data upon which they comment. They rarely publish anything that amounts to first-hand reporting or information. This is where Murdoch’s global organisation has a huge advantage.
Antony Lowenstein’s success in hanging blogs off major newspapers is interesting. But while many newspapers are trying this, there is little (yet) to indicate that it’s anything more than a novelty in the long-run.