Robert Thomson’s keynote address on the distributionists

September 2nd, 2015 by Barry Sookman Leave a reply »

Last month, Robert Thomson, the CEO of News Corp., gave a keynote address at the 2015 Lowy Institute Media Awards dinner.

He spent a good part of that speech addressing challenges to the creative industries, and to  media companies in particular, posed by powerful distribution channels – what he labels “distributionists” – such as Google.

None of them actually create content, and they certainly have little intention of paying for it, but they do redistribute the content created by others – they would argue that such redistribution is a natural extension of their role as social networks. I would argue that much of the redistribution is an unnatural act. But there are broader issues that are still unfolding for media companies, who are themselves struggling to profit from their news and other content, while the distributionists are helping themselves to that content, coopting and corralling audiences and consciously devaluing brands. The supposed idealism of these companies is in stark contrast to their actual behavior. That Google’s newly conceived parent company is to be called Alphabet has itself created a range of delicious permutations: A is for Avarice, B is for Bowdlerize, through to K for Kleptocracy, P for Piracy and Z for Zealotry.

Thomson warns that these Internet giants are entering a new phase of development “in which they are not only appropriating content but deciding what content is appropriate and inappropriate.” They are appointing editors not to create but to curate. And these curators tend to have a certain mindset, a deep fondness for political correctness, and a tendency to be intolerant of ideological infractions.” He says “we have the exponential growth of purportedly neutral platforms built by e-elites that will be far from neutral, far from objective, succumbing to a stultifyingly samey subjectivity and sensibility.”

He then adverted to the “digital divot” – what he referred to as “the deficit in reporting resources created by the egregious aggregation of news by distributors for whom provenance is an inconvenience and who are contemptuous of copyright.” He went on to say:

The words Intellectual Property don’t appear in the Google alphabet. Without proper recognition, without proper remuneration, well-resourced reporting will be ever more challenged. When I arrived in Beijing, many a US newspaper had China correspondents – now some of those papers no longer exist in printed form. Mismanagement played a role, as did journalistic hubris, but the digital age has been hostile to investment in reporters and reporting. Why pay professionals when you have UGC, user-generated content? And why pay when you can purloin? Interestingly these companies are moving on, as we have seen, but their new-found fondness for premium content still comes with an aversion to paying for it. They start from the perspective of form as function, that the canvas should be flawless, seamless, that low latency is more important that professional potency, that content should be captive. But source code is not necessarily a source of wisdom, and platforms that are supposedly “open” will be distinctly vulnerable to closed minds.

He ended the keynote remarking “There is … something inherently wrong when provenance is profane, and when the professional journalist is an endangered species.

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