Should We Listen to Murdoch's Google Threat?

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When Rupert Murdoch makes threats, people listen. But as Jack Shafer points out, that doesn't mean we should take him seriously. So when Murdoch threatened to block Google bots from scanning stories in the Wall Street Journal this week by erecting pay walls around the bulk of his online content, the reaction was one part "Can he really do that?" and three parts "What an adorably dopey idea."

That's my take, too. Here's one small reason why.


The New York Times Opinionator, which stitches various online opinions into columns, reviews the reaction to Murdoch's gambit. I'm not as interested in the particulars of what they said as much as  the method that Opinionator used to round up the opinions. This was an aggregated article about Murdoch's efforts to kill aggregation. The openness of the web is both promising (Google accounts for at least 25 percent of WSJ.com's traffic) and parasitic (those page views don't return a fraction of the ad revenue that dead-tree ads deliver). It's only natural for Murdoch to bluster about this dichotomy. If he has the evidence that a 100% pay wall would recover the revenue from lost page views, then I'm in no position to advise him otherwise. But it seems to me that's not where we're heading.

Shafer's dead-on that Murdoch isn't a lifetime advocate of making expensive quality news. He drove down both the price and the quality of the newspapers he bought in England. Instead, he's a lifetime advocate of making a lot of money. Balancing premium paid content with search engine optimization is a tightrope act, for sure. But in the short term, you can bet on Murdoch continuing to walk the line while threatening to jump, rather than making a bold leap of faith that could end in disaster.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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