Monthly Archives: November 2009

What a Bing News deal might mean for journalism

cash_register_20091130I can’t remember the last time the media world was as excited about a business deal that may or may not be consummated as the one involving Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch. The reason, I think, is three-fold.

First, it potentially moves us beyond the tired old debate about pay walls (I say “potentially,” because we don’t know if Murdoch will give up on that misbegotten notion).

Second, it could provide an answer to the question of who should pay whom, and how.

Third, it could represent a monetary boost for paid journalism at a moment when the profession is in the midst of an existential crisis.

In simple terms, here’s how the deal might work. Microsoft is said to be offering to pay Murdoch and other newspaper publishers (and you’d need a lot of them; Rupe can’t do this alone) to make their sites invisible to Google, a simple matter that involves inserting a line of code. Thus if you wanted to search for a news story about, say, President Obama’s upcoming speech on Afghanistan, you would have use Microsoft’s Bing instead of Google.

Bing News would compete with Google’s automatically assembled Google News service. But, unlike Google, Microsoft would share advertising revenues from Bing News with the news organizations to which it is linking.

To be sure, Google News is the most benign of aggregators. It places no advertising on its home page. That’s important because it’s a customizable substitute front page. Most people read a news site by scanning headlines and ledes, and only occasionally clicking on a story. Thus, if Google were to try to make money from the Google News home page, it could rightly be accused of stealing the most valuable parts of newspaper stories and profiting from that theft. (And, as we know, there are aggregators that do precisely that. As I’ve argued before, Michael Wolff’s Newser may be the most blatant.)

If you search Google News, you will be shown ads related to what you’re looking for. But as Howard Owens has pointed out, if you are searching for a news story on a particular topic, then you are going to click through. Those are valuable readers whom Google is sending to news organizations. And, as Jeff Jarvis argues, it’s not Google’s fault if newspaper executives haven’t been able to figure out how to monetize the audience Google is sending to them.

With that bit of background out of the way, let’s turn this on its head. One of the things about Internet commerce that makes for such fascinating — and frustrating — debate is that it’s unclear which direction the money should be moving in. Even though Google has attempted to step lightly with its news service, Murdoch and some other news executives argue that Google should share ad revenues generated by Google News.

But imagine, if you will, an alternative universe in which newspaper sites were rolling in advertising revenues from readers Google sent their way, but in which Google itself couldn’t find a way to make any money. (Such a scenario requires you to believe a number of ridiculous things, but never mind.) Can you imagine what the debate would be? You’d hear demands that cash-fattened newspaper owners share some of their newly gotten wealth with Google. You’d hear threats that Google would exclude news sites that refused.

My point is that there isn’t really any underlying principle as to who ought to pay for what online. Rather, the debate is driven by who’s making money, who’s losing money and — here’s where we get back to Microsoft — the business model of any particular Internet company.

What is Microsoft’s business interest with respect to Bing? Simply this: to build market share, establishing Bing as a serious search alternative to Google. Bing has a long way to go, with 10 percent of the market to Google’s 65 percent. That said, Bing has received good reviews since its debut earlier this year. And it’s really the only search engine to emerge as any kind of rival to Google pretty much since Google slipped into view in the late 1990s.

Bing News, as a partner of news sites rather than a rival, would have some advantages over Google News. The biggest would be that it wouldn’t have to pussyfoot around with regard to advertising. Since it would be sharing revenue, it could assemble an ad-laden home page, and make its search results more advertising-driven than Google News’ are.

Since it would be sharing those revenues, the news organizations, rather than complain, would be cheering Microsoft on. And if users came to understand that they had to visit Bing in order to search, say, the world’s 100 or so biggest and best newspapers, then Bing would quickly gain market share at Google’s expense.

Sadly, this would represent a significant setback to Google’s vision of indexing all the world’s knowledge. But there has always been an inherent tension in leaving it to a private corporation to carry out such a utopian plan. Look at the ongoing battle over Google Books, which would benefit everyone, but none more than Google.

It would also represent business as usual for Microsoft, which dominated the 1980s and ’90s not by offering more to its customers but by crippling its competitors. This is a company that, as legend would have it, built market share for its spreadsheet, Excel, by rewriting MS-DOS — its Windows precursor — so that the leading program, Lotus 1-2-3, wouldn’t run properly. “The job’s not done till Lotus won’t run” is one variation of the supposed battle cry heard in Redmond. Paying newspapers to pull out of Google is just the latest iteration of that theme.

But will it work? Is there any way a Bing News service could generate the sort of advertising revenue that would make up for a significant chunk of what the traditional media have lost? Somehow it seems doubtful. Still, it strikes me as a far more worthy experiment than whatever Steven Brill has been cooking up with his paid-content scheme for lo these many months. I hope we’ll get a chance to see how this all plays out.

New directions for “The NewsHour”

Every so often I punch up “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” from the Comcast On Demand menu. Fifteen minutes later, in a catatonic stupor, I fumble for the remote and choose something else. There is absolutely no need for a serious newscast to be that boring. NPR has hit on a formula that’s intelligent but also keeps things moving. So, presumably, can PBS.

So I was encouraged to read Elizabeth Jensen’s story in today’s New York Times about efforts to remake the newscast — efforts being supported, and even led, by Lehrer, the septuagenarian anchor. Among other things, the renewed program (to be renamed “The PBS NewsHour”), which debuts Dec. 7, will feature tighter integration with its online incarnation and weekly contributions from Boston-based GlobalPost.

Sounds promising.

Extreme eating, at home and abroad

travel_211_ex_pigout

From "Extreme Pig Outs"

Last night I started clicking and arrived at “Extreme Pig Outs,” on the Travel Channel. The premise: “America’s the fattest country in the world! And we didn’t get that way from eating broccoli.”

I wasn’t exactly hooked, but it didn’t seem that there was anything else on. (I wish I’d caught up with Kevin earlier: he’d found a program on the History Channel about the Mayflower.)

Anyway, an hour of watching folks make themselves sick at demented eating contests carried us through to the news. But though the statement that we’re the fattest people in the world seems right, is it true?

Apparently not. According to GlobalPost, the United States is only the third-fattest, based on data compiled by the World Health Organization.

Coming in at number one, believe it or not, is American Samoa, which is not an independent country, but which is apparently sufficiently non-American to get us off the hook. Fully 99.3 percent have body-mass indexes of 30 or more.

Following American Samoa is the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, which I confess I’d never heard of. Then comes the United States, with 66.7 percent breaking the tragic 30 barrier.

Some of the countries on the list are surprising. Egypt? Bosnia? Israel? Who knew? But there are specific explanations for each.

For instance, the reporter, Laurie Cunningham, writes that well-educated Jewish women in Israel are among the thinnest in the world; the obesity problem exists mainly among poorly educated Arab women. That, of course, reflects weight disparities based on income and education in the U.S. as well.

We in Media Nation are trying to avoid becoming statistics, though it may be hard. After a Thanksgiving dinner with my 95-year-old uncle yesterday, we’re going to do it all over again today. Turkey coma awaits.

More on Murdoch and Microsoft

In my latest for the Guardian, I take a closer look at Rupert Murdoch’s dalliance with Microsoft, whose search engine, Bing, is emerging as the main competitor to Google.

The Murdoch-Microsoft story, which I first wrote about last week, got a huge boost yesterday in the Financial Times. Today the New York Times follows up.

NU football and sports journalism

football_20091123Football has never been a big deal at Northeastern. Still, it’s a surprise to see the program canceled just a couple of years after it survived a major review. (Huntington News coverage; Boston Globe story and Dan Shaughnessy column; Boston Herald story.)

From my parochial perspective, I feel bad that aspiring sportswriters in our School of Journalism will no longer have a football team to cover. Yes, there will still be plenty of sports news. But football is a big part of what our student newspaper, the Huntington News, does every fall.

I’m not just an employee of Northeastern; I’m also an alumnus. During the 1970s, when I was a student, I probably went to three or four football games, either as a member of the band or to tag along with the future Mrs. Media Nation, a photographer for the News.

As Northeastern has become more of a residential university, sports in general have become more important on campus. Football, though, could never compete — certainly not with the hockey program.

Ironically, I went to graduate school at Boston University, which canceled its own football program more than a decade ago. (Honest — it’s not my fault.)

I guess the lesson is that football is so expensive that if you can’t do it big, like Boston College, you shouldn’t do it at all.

Brownanomics

Assuming that state Sen. Scott Brown wins the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate on Dec. 8 (first he has to get by perennial candidate Jack E. Robinson), he’s going to have to show greater economic literacy than he has to date.

On Saturday, the New York Times quoted Mark Zandi — an economic adviser to Republican president candidate John McCain in 2008 — as saying that the $787 billion stimulus has created or saved 1.1 million jobs. If anything, Zandi added, the stimulus should have been bigger.

And Martin Feldstein, a top economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan — who, you may have heard, was also a Republican — told the Times that the main problem with the stimulus was that it relied too much on tax cuts and too little on federal spending. Feldstein said:

There should have been more direct federal spending that would have added to aggregate demand. Temporary tax cuts and one-time transfers to seniors were largely saved and didn’t stimulate spending.

Now here’s what Brown told the Boston Globe when asked if he would support a second stimulus (he would not): “It hasn’t created one job that I’m aware of.”

It gets worse: “It created government jobs certainly, and government is doing well.” Brown does not explain what government jobs were created, but perhaps he’s referring to government jobs that were saved — those of teachers, police officers and firefighters. Would he rather they be unemployed?

Right complaint, wrong picture

palin_doll_20091119A number of critics, including Sarah Palin herself, are going after Newsweek for running a cover shot of her in a sexy running outfit. Palin calls it “sexist.”

I can’t get too worked up about it. Palin, after all, posed for the shot, which was originally intended for Runner’s World. (At Beat the Press, Ralph Ranalli writes that Newsweek may have violated Runner’s World’s exclusivity deal with the freelance photographer.)

But Palin and other critics have a legitimate complaint about Newsweek’s inside photos. I haven’t picked up a Newsweek in many months, but Media Matters has the pictures — a back-to image of Palin’s shapely legs, something she most definitely did not pose for; and a photo of what Media Matters accurately describes as a “Sarah Palin-as-a-slutty-schoolgirl doll.” The latter was used to illustrate a piece by Christopher Hitchens, who is almost as overexposed as Palin herself.

The treatment is further evidence of Newsweek’s plunge into irrelevance. The New York Times this week described the magazine as repositioning itself for a smaller, more intelligent news audience.

But with garbage like this, and with recent cover headlines like “Is Your Baby Racist?”, the only thing editor Jon Meacham seems to be repositioning his magazine for is rack space next to People and Us.

Rupe to Google: Bing this, mate

Murdoch_on_BingTwo things are clear about Rupert Murdoch’s pronouncements that he will build a pay wall around his sites, and that he’ll make them invisible to Google’s search engine.

First, he’ll fail utterly if that’s all there is. (How much would you pay for NYPost.com? Yeah, I thought so.) Second, given his track record as a media visionary, we should be cautious not to assume that’s all there is. As I told Chris Lefkow of Agence France Presse a few days ago, Rupe has a history of being two or three steps ahead of everyone else.

Now, it’s unclear what Murdoch may have in mind, and it’s likely that’s because he doesn’t know yet, either. But a media-savvy Media Nation reader has been feeding me stories suggesting that newspaper publishers — including Murdoch — may be inching toward an embrace with Microsoft, whose well-regarded search engine, Bing, has quickly established itself as the number-two competitor to Google.

Imagine some of the ways that this might work. Let’s start with the fact that all any Web publisher has to do is insert some code into its site in order to stop Google News from including it in its search results. No one dares do that, because Google drives lots of traffic to those sites. But publishers have long chafed at Google’s refusal to share any of its ad revenue with them.

But if you had to use Bing rather than Google in order to find content from a number of Big Media players, then you’d have to broaden your searches to two engines. Murdoch and his fellow media moguls might keep their sites open (smart) in return for Microsoft sharing the revenue it earns from selling ads tied to news content.

Or Microsoft might devise a more fine-tuned digital-rights-management system so that content-providers could offer a variety of open, closed and semi-open options (not so smart). There might even be a way for Google to include such content in its own searches as long as it didn’t upset Bing’s infrastructure.

At TechCrunch, Mike Butcher describes meetings that Microsoft is already having with European publishers. According to Butcher, Microsoft is prepared to invest nearly $170,000 in research and development. (I realize this sounds a bit like Lorne Michaels’ offering the Beatles $3,000 to reunite on “Saturday Night Live.”)

Jason Calacanis imagines Microsoft making a pitch that goes something like this:

Want to search the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and 3,894 other newspapers and magazine?

Well, then don’t go to Google because they don’t have them!

Go to Bing, home of quality content you can trust!

At Slate, Jack Shafer has more, with links from others hypothesizing what may be happening.

What’s clear is that Murdoch is going to try something dramatic, and that he’ll most likely have some major players on his side. What he’s saying right now may bear little resemblance to the strategy that ultimately emerges.

More: Poynter’s Rick Edmonds is thinking similar thoughts.

Earlier: Rupe prepares to take the plunge.