Murdoch: My media vision

In an address to the American Society of Newspapaer Editors, Rupert Murdoch admitted he was slow to react to the internet revolution, but set out an agenda to bring consumers to a news 'destination' on the web
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The Independent Online

When a newspaper proprietor faces this many editors in one room, usually it means only one thing - a demand for a pay increase. But as I stand before this esteemed group of editors, I'm reminded of something Mark Twain once wrote to a friend: "How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher... But we remember, with charity, that his intentions were good."

When a newspaper proprietor faces this many editors in one room, usually it means only one thing - a demand for a pay increase. But as I stand before this esteemed group of editors, I'm reminded of something Mark Twain once wrote to a friend: "How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher... But we remember, with charity, that his intentions were good."

I come before you with the best of intentions. My subject is one near and dear to all of us: the role of newspapers in this digital age.

Scarcely a day goes by without some claim that new technologies are writing newsprint's obituary. Yet, as an industry, many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably complacent. Certainly, I didn't do as much as I should have after the excitement of the late 1990s. I suspect many of you quietly hoped this thing called the digital revolution would just limp along.

Well, it hasn't. It won't. And it's a fast-developing reality we should grasp as a huge opportunity to improve our journalism and expand our reach.

I come to this discussion not as an expert, but as someone searching for answers to an emerging medium that is not my native language. Like many of you, I'm a digital immigrant. I wasn't weaned on the web, nor coddled on a computer. I grew up in a highly centralised world where news and information were tightly controlled by a few editors, who deemed to tell us what we could and should know.

The peculiar challenge, then, is for us digital immigrants - many of whom are in positions to determine how news is assembled and disseminated - to apply a digital mindset to a new set of challenges.

We need to realise that the next generation of people accessing news and information have a different set of expectations about the kind of news they will get, including when and how they will get it, where they will get it from, and who they will get it from.

Anyone who doubts this should read the report by the Carnegie Corporation about young people's changing habits of news consumption and what they mean for the future of the news industry.

According to this report: "There's a dramatic revolution taking place in the news business today, and it isn't about TV anchor changes, scandals at newspapers or embedded reporters." The future course of news, says the study, is being altered by technology-savvy young people no longer wedded to traditional news outlets, or even accessing news in traditional ways.

Instead, consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 are increasingly using the web as their medium of choice for news. Local TV news remains the most accessed source, but internet portals are quickly becoming young consumers' favoured destination for news.

Their attitudes towards newspapers are especially alarming. Only 9 per cent describe us as trustworthy, a scant 8 per cent find us useful, and only 4 per cent of respondents think that we're entertaining.

What is happening is, in short, a revolution in the way young people access news. They don't want to rely on the morning paper for up-to-date information. They don't want a god-like figure from above telling them what's important. To carry the analogy further, they certainly don't want news presented as gospel. Instead, they want news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it.

In the face of this revolution, we've been slow to react. We've sat by while our newspapers have gradually lost circulation. We all know of great and expensive exceptions to this - but the technology is now moving much faster.

One writer, Philip Meyer, has even suggested (in his book The Vanishing Newspaper) that looking at today's declining newspaper readership and continuing that line, the last reader recycles the last printed paper in 2040 - April 2040, to be exact.

There are a number of reasons for our inertia. First, newspapers as a medium enjoyed a virtual information monopoly for centuries - roughly from the birth of the printing press to the rise of radio. We never had a reason to second-guess what we were doing. Second, even after the advent of television, a slow but steady decline in readership was masked by population growth. Third, even after absolute circulations started to decline in the 1990s, profitability did not.

But those days are gone. The trends are against us. Fast search-engines and targeted advertising as well as editorial: all increase the electronic attractions by a factor of three or four. And at least $4bn a year is going into R&D to improve this process further.

So, unless we awaken to these changes, which are quite different to those of five or six years ago, we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans. But, properly done, they are an opportunity to improve our journalism and expand our reach.

Like the advent of radio before it, television was always going to be at best an alternative way to get the news, and at worst a direct competitor. There was no way to make it a part, or even a partner, of the paper.

That is manifestly not true of the internet. And all our papers are living proof. I venture to say that not one newspaper represented in this room lacks a website. Yet how many of us can say we are taking maximum advantage of those sites to serve our readers, to strengthen our businesses, or to meet head-on what readers increasingly say is important to them in receiving news?

Yet I'm still confident of our future, both in print and via electronic delivery platforms. The data may show that young people aren't reading newspapers as much as their predecessors, but it doesn't show they don't want news. They want a lot of news - just faster, of a different kind, delivered in a different way.

We have the experience, the brands, the resources, and the know-how to get it done. We have unique content to differentiate ourselves in a world where news is becoming increasingly commoditised. And, most importantly, we have a great new partner to help us reach this new consumer - the internet.

The challenge, however, is to deliver that news in ways consumers want to receive it. Before we can apply our competitive advantages, we have to free our minds of our prejudices and predispositions, and start thinking like our newest consumers.

At News Corporation, we have a history of challenging media orthodoxies. Nearly 20 years ago, we created a fourth broadcast network. We weren't constrained by the "news at six, prime time at eight, news again at 11" paradigm. We shortened the primetime block to two hours, pushed up the news by an hour and programmed the network to a younger audience. The result was the Fox Broadcast Network, today America's No 1 network for 18-49-year-olds.

Similarly, we sensed 10 years ago that people watching TV news felt alienated by the monolithic presentation of the news they were getting from the nightly news broadcasts or cable networks. The result was the Fox news channel, now the No 1 US cable news network.

Most recently, at the The Times of London, circulation decline was reversed when we moved from a broadsheet to what we call our "compact" edition. For nearly a year, we offered readers both versions: same newspaper, same stories, just different sizes. And they overwhelmingly chose the compact version.

This is an example of us listening to what readers want, and then upsetting a centuries-old tradition to give them exactly what they asked for. And we did it without compromising the quality of our product.

In this spirit, we're now turning to the internet. Today, the newspaper is just a paper. Tomorrow, it can be a destination. Today, to the extent anyone is a destination, it's the internet portals: the Yahoos, Googles and MSNs. The challenge for us is to create an internet presence that is compelling enough for users to make us their home page.

We need to encourage readers to think of the web as the place to go to engage our reporters and editors in more extended discussions about the way a particular story was reported, researched or presented.

At the same time, we may want to experiment with the concept of using bloggers to supplement our daily coverage of news on the net. There are of course inherent risks in this strategy - chief among them maintaining our standards of accuracy and reliability.

What is required is a complete transformation of the way we think about our product. Unfortunately, I believe too many of us editors and reporters are out of touch with our readers. Too often, the question we ask is: "Do we have the story?" rather than: "Does anyone want the story?"

According to a recent study, the percentage of national journalists who have a great deal of confidence in the ability of the American public to make good decisions has declined by more than 20 points since 1999. Perhaps this reflects personal politics and prejudices more than anything else, but it is disturbing.

This is a polite way of saying that reporters and editors think their readers are stupid. In any business, such an attitude towards one's customers would not be healthy. But in the newspaper business, where we rely on people to come back to us each day, it will be disastrous if not addressed.

Success in the online world will, I think, beget greater success in the printed medium. By streamlining our operations and becoming more nimble; by changing the way we write and edit stories; by listening more intently to our readers.

We may never become true digital natives. But we can and must begin to assimilate to their culture and way of thinking. It is a monumental, once-in-a-generation opportunity, but it is an exciting one, because if we're successful, our industry has the potential to reshape itself, and to be healthier than ever before.

This is an edited version of Mr Murdoch's speech