Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Give Readers Something They Want to Read"

Reporting on Rupert Murdoch's appearance at the All Things Digital conference in his Outside the Lines blog, Dan Farber seemed more interested in the acuity of Murdoch's wit than he was in whether or not what Murdoch was saying made any sense. Consider Farber's opening paragraphs:

Sitting across from his employees and writers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the D6 conference, News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch shared his view on newspaper editing.

"A Wall Street Journal story is touched or edited by 8.5 people, and the story gets longer and longer, and people don't have time for that," he said. "There is not a story you can't get in half the space."

If the whole Wall Street Journal were like Mossberg's column, Murdoch said he would be a happy man, getting some big laughs from the D6 crowd. The 77-year-old media mogul understands the shortening attention span of the planet.

Murdoch apparently isn't fond of journalism prizes. "Stop having people write articles to win Pulitzer Prizes--give readers something they want to read."

While I sympathize with the spirit of the first half of that last sentence (which I equate with my own distaste for young musicians who concentrate too much on winning competitions), the second half demonstrates why, for all of his financial success, I find little to praise in Murdoch's accomplishments. I find at least two critical flaws in those last seven words:

  1. The most important flaw is a category error. It presumes a lack of diversity in any "community of readers," whether that community is as broad as everyone comfortable with reading English (for example) or as narrow as the subscriber base for The Wall Street Journal. To speak of "the readers" as a sort of "collective agent" with a consistent set of desires and motives is, at best, a statistical myth. Like any statistical myth, it is basically a representation of a collection of data points from the past, which may or may not say anything valid about how the individuals in that collective are behaving in the present or are likely to behave in the future. If Murdoch is concerned about the circulation figures of the Journal for the rest of this calendar year, that representation is a relatively blunt instrument, although it may still be the most suitable instrument for the way in which he plans to run this new acquisition. All this means, though, is that Murdoch would not be the first to make business decisions (even successful business decisions) based on premises that are fundamentally fictitious.
  2. However, even if we accept that fiction behind that pronoun "they," Murdoch may also have failed to recognize the subtle distinction between what an agent wants to read and what that agent will read. The former resides in the subjective world of the agent's individual psychology, while the latter is more a matter of how that subjective world can be manipulated by the social world. For example, my guess is that those blunt statistical instruments would indicate that "readers" are not particularly interested in reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams. Nevertheless, HBO decided to develop a television miniseries around this book, which seems to have done a better-than-expected job of creating enough "buzz" in the social world to sway the subjective interests of those "readers" (at least as far as their television viewing time was concerned). As a reaction to that "buzz," The New Republic bet that "readers" would now "want" to cross a bridge, so to speak, from entertainment to scholarship and hosted an episode-by-episode symposium, which gave voice to the respective authorities of a historian, a writer, and the HBO co-executive producer. This constituted another instance of engaging the mechanisms of the social world to influence individual subjective reading behavior. I could see Murdoch dismissing these examples as too elitist to have any general significance, and it is probably true that Fox News uses a different logic than HBO does in making programming decisions. However, like the first point, the key to this subjective-social distinction resides in the rich diversity of the social world in which individuals (such as those who read The Wall Street Journal) are embedded.

Yesterday I wrote about how it is in the best interests of the media (or, more specifically, the business interests of the media) to keep their customers "in a perpetual infantile state." Murdoch's precept is based on a fundamental property of infantilism, which is the prioritizing of self-gratification above all other interests. Thus, at least on an intuitive level, Murdoch recognizes that the social world is as important as the subjective world; but he recognizes it more as an instrument of manipulation than as a reflection of the nature of his present and potential customers. From that point of view, all of that wit that so impressed Farber was probably nothing other than one of Murdoch's many manipulation gambits.

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