Friday, December 04, 2009

Murdoch and the tide of change

It's for good reason that the industry is gripped with Rupert Murdoch's plans to charge readers to see stories. And it's not just about whether he has, as many first thought, lost the plot. It's more to do with the fact that he’s in the enviable position of actually having one, for better or for worse.

Whatever his plans, he’s making an audacious statement that flies in the face of the panic sweeping newsrooms: telling Google he can do without them at a time search engines have begun dictating what we write.

As someone used to dictating the agenda, certain practices may not sit well with him, and the pandering to optimisation may be one of them. I’m not decrying SEO, far from it, but the thought of national newsrooms being told by their SEO police to write something – anything – about Jedward or the some nutter who’s taking Twitter by storm because they’re scoring well on Google Trends must rub a bit.

Not to mention the thought of some lackey sending a round-robin: "Can we start tagging stories ‘fags’” mid-budget speech or “Euro” during election night just so we can stay keyword savvy.

The issue here is not about whether he has hit upon the holy grail of business plans but how enduring is his influence as a catalyst for change. We're seeing the green shoots of that already.

Journalism as a whole was a late adopter to the web and many of the old school are still just waking up to what it represents. At its best, it means serious industry names joining key debates with conviction; at its worst, the unseemly scramble for seats from the dead wood eager to nail their colours to a new mast and reinvent themselves. (“Hey everyone, I'm now in charge of digital paperback blogging. Does that mean I get a student?”) Don't tell me that doesn't ring a bell?

Then there’s the fallacy that integration would reduce costs in Fleet Street and the qualitative cost to local journalism by virtue of the fact that it has (seriously, more on that later...).

We’ve got to accept that the face of journalism will change as the dam we’ve been holding back for the past few years finally bursts. The profile of those practicing it will change with the job description we’ve yet to write – and the commercial future will lay not with the words we produce but how we leverage our brands as a tool to attract something that will.

There are more twists and turns to come and, while Murdoch may not end up leading the change, he’s doing what he’s done many times in the past and forcing us more quickly into it.

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