Monday, November 17, 2008

A Fireside Chat with Uncle Rupert

This has been making the rounds, but I just got around to it: Rupert Murdoch's Australian radio lecture on the future of newspapers. He has a vested interested, of course, in rooting for the status quo. But interestingly, he hedges his bets strongly with a vision of a digital future, just as Arthur Sulzberger did a few weeks ago, and just as his own son James, the heir apparent, did at Monaco last week.

Here's Rupert initially appearing to prop up the printed product:

Unlike the doom and gloomers, I believe that newspapers will reach new heights. In the 21st century, people are hungrier for information than ever before. And they have more sources of information than ever before.

Amid these many diverse and competing voices, readers want what they've always wanted: a source they can trust. That has always been the role of great newspapers in the past. And that role will make newspapers great in the future.

But then, he immediately (and correctly and astutely) qualifies what he means by "newspapers":

If you discuss the future with newspapermen, you will find that too many think that our business is only physical newspapers. I like the look and feel of newsprint as much as anyone. But our real business isn't printing on dead trees. It's giving our readers great journalism and great judgment.

It's true that in the coming decades, the printed versions of some newspapers will lose circulation. But if papers provide readers with news they can trust, we'll see gains in circulation—on our web pages, through our RSS feeds, in emails delivering customised news and advertising, to mobile phones.

In short, we are moving from news papers to news brands. For all of my working life, I have believed that there is a social and commercial value in delivering accurate news and information in a cheap and timely way. In this coming century, the form of delivery may change, but the potential audience for our content will multiply many times over.

After digressing into yarns about busting British unions with a new printing plant in Wapping, and a dissertation on how "a blogger in pajamas" upstaged Dan Rather, Murdoch offers keen insights into the digital future of news that should have been circulated at API's recent first semiannual conference to save the U.S. newspaper industry. Among these:

The defining digital trend in content is the increasing sophistication of search. You can already customise your news flow, whether by country, company or subject. A decade from now, the offerings will be even more sophisticated. You will be able to satisfy your unique interests and search for unique content.

After all, a female university student in Malaysia is not going to have the same interests as a 60-year-old Manhattan executive. Closer to home, your teenage son is not going to have the same interests as your mother. The challenge is to use a newspaper's brand while allowing readers to personalise the news for themselves—and then deliver it in the ways that they want....

In all we do, we're going to deliver it in ways that best fit our readers' preferences: on web pages they can access from home or work on still evolving inventions like Amazon's kindle as well as on cell phones or blackberries....

I do not claim to have all the answers. Given the realities of modern technology, this very radio address can be sliced and digitally diced. It can be accessed in a day or a month or a decade. And I can rightly be held to account in perpetuity for the points on which I am proven wrong—as well as mocked for my inability to see just how much more different the world had become.

But I don't think I will be proven wrong on one point. The newspaper, or a very close electronic cousin, will always be around. It may not be thrown on your front doorstep the way it is today. But the thud it makes as it lands will continue to echo around society and the world.

Regardless of how you may feel about the concentration of media power in his hands, this is a guy who gets it, and is ready to move boldly when the right moment comes.

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