While Rupert Murdoch is busy shaking his fist at Google (GOOG), he is making more friendly overtures to other media players. Sources tell me his News Corp. may join the digital e-reader storefront that Time Inc. and other magazine publishers are putting together.
It’s not clear if News Corp. (NWS) will end up investing in the joint venture, which is designed to control distribution of “print” content to readers like Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle and Apple’s (AAPL) rumored tablet, or if the company will simply agree to tailor its stuff–most notably, The Wall Street Journal–to the joint venture’s standards.
In either case, News Corp. has yet to officially sign on, sources tell me. An announcement formally acknowledging the JV itself is supposed to be a couple of weeks away, though I have been hearing this for at least six weeks.
No comment from News Corp. or Time Inc., the Time Warner (TWX) publishing unit that has been assembling the JV. Other expected partners include Hearst, Condé Nast and, perhaps, Meredith. (Disclosure: News Corp. owns Dow Jones, which owns this Web site.)
In some ways, News Corp. is an obvious partner for the coalition, which I like to call “Hulu for magazines.” Murdoch has been an outspoken critic of Amazon’s distribution and pricing policies; he argues that by controlling the subscription of digital newspaper and magazines delivered through its e-reader, Amazon deprives publishers of a valuable asset.
Murdoch also wants more money for the stuff it does sell: In an earnings call last week, he said that while the bookseller was now paying his company up to $6.50 a month for each $15 monthly subscription to The Wall Street Journal, that split wasn’t good enough.
The JV is supposed to solve those problems for publishers by letting them control sales, customer billing and pricing. But it is also primarily designed with magazine publishers in mind, and News Corp. isn’t in that business.
Meanwhile, New Corp.’s Dow Jones unit is proprietary about the system it has already built to handle subscriptions to the Journal’s print and online editions and its BlackBerry and iPhone apps.
While it’s possible that the JV could use the Dow Jones subscription/commerce platform as the technological base of the JV, Dow Jones could be prickly if asked to play well with others. “Newspapers and magazines, don’t mix well, for reasons that aren’t obvious to the outside world,” says a News Corp. executive briefed on some of the company’s conversations.
In any event, balancing different partners’ interests is only one of the hurdles facing the JV. Some others, from the story I published last month:
- They’ll have to convince consumers who already have billing relationships with Amazon, Apple and other vendors to sign up with yet another service.
- They’ll have to convince device makers to play along with the strategy, which runs counter to many of their own plans. Both Amazon and Apple, for instance, have intentionally created closed systems that give them control of both devices and distribution.
- They’ll have to create content consumers want to buy. The new product can’t simply be a digital version of the magazines they’re already printing: That’s already available on the Web, and consumers have shown almost no interest in paying for it, and advertisers haven’t fully embraced it either.
So what exactly will the JV be selling? That’s probably the most difficult question for publishers to answer, made even more difficult because they don’t know what capabilities the e-readers of the future will boast. Apple for instance, refuses to even acknowledge to Time Inc. executives that it plans to produce a tablet device, let alone provide them with specs.