News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch is stepping up his war of words against the Internet culture of free content, threatening to remove his company’s newspaper sites from the indexes of Google and other search engines once their content has been placed behind a pay-wall.
In an interview with Sky News Australia, Murdoch was asked if he was serious about pulling content from the search engines and aggregators, a move that many industry watchers have dismissed as more bluster than conviction.
“Well I think we will, but that’s when we start charging,” Murdoch said.
News Corp. (NASDAQ: NWS) holds a one-third stake in Sky News Australia.
Murdoch and other News Corp. executives have been talking loudly about erecting pay-walls to protect online news content for months as they, like every other newspaper publisher, struggle with the disruptive economics of the Internet that have relegated print to a legacy medium and severely undercut advertising revenue.
“The fact is there’s not enough advertising in the world to go around to make all the Web sites profitable,” Murdoch said. “We’d rather have fewer people coming to our Web sites but paying.”
He noted that one News Corp. publication, the Wall Street Journal, still maintains its subscription firewall, but displays snippets of articles before requiring subscribers to log in.
“We have a wall, but it’s not right to the ceiling,” Murdoch said.
Of course, the workaround the Journal’s pay-wall is a poorly kept secret. Typically, navigating to an article through a Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) search will retrieve the full text. But Murdoch’s idea of pulling content from search engines would put an end to that.
Removing a site from the spiders used by Google and other aggregators to index the Web can be accomplished through a fairly trivial technical procedure. Adding a small text file known as robots.txt to a site conveys instructions to the spiders to steer clear of the content.
In the interview with Sky News Australia, Murdoch renewed his criticism of Google and other search and aggregation services — mentioning Microsoft and Ask.com by name — for scraping content from all corners of the Web and serving it up to users for free, a model that he said undermines readers’ loyalty to a publication, and offers scant returns for content that is expensive to produce.
As the runaway leader in the search engine sector, Google has become an emblem of the Internet side of the newspaper equation. CEO Eric Schmidt has spoken often on the subject, and Vice President Marissa Mayer was called to testify at a Senate hearing on the subject earlier this year.
They counter charges from the likes of Murdoch by pointing out that Google and other search and aggregation services boost news sites by funneling directing millions of visitors to their articles, in turn driving ad revenue.
But Murdoch has little patience for that argument, claiming that it has trained users to skim the headlines and brief article synopses that appear in search results, which often provide as much information as the attention-challenged Internet generation requires.
And even when users do click through to an article, is that enough?
“What’s the point of having someone come occasionally?” Murdoch said. “They don’t suddenly become loyal readers of our content.”
Removing News Corp. properties from the search indexes would resolve that issue, though Murdoch hinted that his company was preparing for an aggressive legal defense of its content that would take aim at the copyright principle of fair use, which permits the publication of snippets of copyrighted content.
“There’s a doctrine called fair use which we believe could be challenged in the courts,” he said. “We’ll take that slowly.”
Murdoch also echoed what has been a running theme in the angst-ridden saga about news in the digital age, namely, that newspaper publishers’ collective decision to remove the pay-walls to their sites was the industry’s “original sin,” giving rise to the expectation that online content should be free.
“They shouldn’t have had it free all the time. I think we’ve been asleep,” Murdoch said. “It costs us a lot of money to put together good newspapers and good content, and you know they’re very happy to pay for it when they buy a newspaper, and I think when they read it elsewhere they’re going to have to pay.”