How Much Do You Care about Newspapers?

There’s lots of discussion and controversy stemming from a report that appeared in the Financial Times yesterday. In the article Microsoft is said to be seeking News Corp’s participation in a plan to withdraw content from Google:

Microsoft has had discussions with News Corp over a plan that would involve the media company being paid to “de-index” its news websites from Google, setting the scene for a search engine battle that could offer a ray of light to the newspaper industry.

The impetus for the discussions came from News Corp, owner of newspapers ranging from the Wall Street Journal of the US to The Sun of the UK, said a person familiar with the situation, who warned that talks were at an early stage.

However, the Financial Times has learnt that Microsoft has also approached other big online publishers to persuade them to remove their sites from Google’s search engine.

News Corp and Microsoft, which owns the rival Bing search engine, declined to comment.

One website publisher approached by Microsoft said that the plan “puts enormous value on content if search engines are prepared to pay us to index with them”.

Essentially then Microsoft would be paying newspaper publishers to allow indexing of content in Bing and de-indexing that content from Google. There’s lots of discussion on Techmeme and Danny Sullivan at SEL has a long and thoughtful article about why this wouldn’t work. By contrast, some like Mark Cuban think it’s a smart plan.

I’m going to take a much cruder approach to this debate and argue that newspaper brands have generally become weak and news content available from multiple sources. Accordingly the strategy wouldn’t help Microsoft as much as the report impliedly argues. People care less and less about newspaper content (per se), as a practical matter. They care about content and information not that the information came ultimately from Source X or Source Y (e.g., newspaper vs. directory or portal). Brands do matter, but this is a more nuanced conversation.

If Microsoft were to create a “kick ass” online news experience with exclusive content from top publishers it might gain usage as a destination. It wouldn’t impact Bing search volumes in any material way however, in my view. Furthermore, it also wouldn’t impact Google usage in a material way either.

If I want the score in the Cal-Stanford “Big Game,” from Saturday I could still get it on Google. If I want news headlines, there will be enough sources indexed to get the information. Google’s deal with AP would cover most national news and its AFP deal would do the same for international news.

More likely people will navigate to those news sources/aggregators that they like and trust to get news content. For example, I go to Yahoo! News and the NY Times for most of my news checks during the day. I don’t really look to search Google for news, except to do a quick navigational lookup for a specific story. (I suppose this is the Bing plan, pulling that from the Google index.) As a practical matter content that isn’t indexed will simply fall off the radar screen for the majority of the online audience.

Do you disagree? Let me know what you think.

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Update: There’s plenty of research and data that says people go to newspapers sites and care about news content. According to recent Scarborough data:

  • 79% of adults in white-collar jobs read a newspaper in print or online.
  • 82% of adults with household incomes of $100K+ per year read printed or online newspaper content.
  • 84% of college graduates or those with advanced degrees read content from either the print or online version of a newspaper each week.

I’m arguing that people don’t necessarily care that news content shows up in search results, nor will they miss any particular publication in search results if it’s removed.

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2 Responses to “How Much Do You Care about Newspapers?”

  1. Tom Crandall Says:

    In 2005/06 I spoke to the executive leadership at Hearst, Tribune, Times, & Gannett regarding the benefits of optimizing content for search (while at iCrossing). At the time, if you recall, most were publishing content for around two weeks to 30 days, then archiving the content, accessible only by subscription.

    It was my responsibility to explain the solution and build the case that search traffic, properly monetized, would generate more revenue than subscription-based archive access. The top executive at Tribune Interactive explained to me that archive subscription revenues didn’t “generate enough revenue to pay the lighting bill at their offices.”

    Eventually the paradigm changed within the leadership of major publishers and they began to eliminate archives and optimize content for search–this generates additional ad revenue from the traffic referred by search engines.

    Murdoch acts as if he fundamentally does not understand that search engines referring eyeballs to newspaper sites is a positive that increases ad revenue. I don’t buy it.

    This is nothing more than an opportunity to leverage Microsoft’s desperation to compete with Google for profit. There are ways he could benefit from Microsoft, Google, or both through structured agreements.

    The biggest blow to the newspaper industry was caused by a person named Craig Newmark.

    In reality very few publications are able to survive on a subscription-based model. There are just too many news sources that are willing to compete by providing free access (while generating ad revenue). The opportunity for most newspapers lies within their ability to monetize traffic. Period.

  2. Mark Bossert Says:

    I agree with Tom and your views on this Greg. Newspapers as a “brand” are getting less and less important as trusted sources. There are many, many sources of news online, and do people check the source when they see an interesting story on a news aggregator site?

    I also agree with Tom that this is a play by Murdoch to squeeze MS for money.

    All broadcast media management mostly have no idea what to do about this whole intertubes thing other than hug their knees and rock back and forth going, “Mommy make it go away!”

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