The spirit of Project Alesia, News Corp’s iPad news aggregator, is alive and well, according to James Murdoch.
The London-based venture was reportedly put “on hold” last month, after it failed to attract other newspapers to the platform, who were not falling over themselves to be aggregated by News Corp.
But speaking at the Morgan Stanley TMT conference in Barcelona on Wednesday, Mr Murdoch – chief executive of News Corp Europe and Asia – said that bundles were still very much part of his digital vision, on the iPad and beyond.
“The Alesia concept – which is not so much about tablets, it’s more about bundling digital journalism subscriptions – is one that is very, very exciting,” Mr Murdoch said.
“From the perspective of being able to bundle digital newspapers, if you will, or journalism on that basis to drive down cost for customers and drive up consumption, we think that’s a very exciting prospect and makes sense for customers.”
While he admitted that other newspapers’ interest was limited, he gave a slightly different version of events to other publishers, who cite issues around editorial control and data ownership.
“It’s largely because the independent publishers haven’t really made up their mind in terms of where they set their own digital products,” he said. News Corp already bundles digital subscriptions for the Wall Street Journal and the Australian down under. “We will continue to do that sort of thing, particularly in the UK and potentially in the US.”
That kind of bundling could help opponents of News Corp’s potential takeover of BSkyB form an argument that it threatens media plurality in the UK, as Ofcom, the media regulator, weighs the deal. But the real targets of the scheme are search engines: Project Alesia, part of the Murdoch empire’s offensive against Google, was purportedly named after Julius Caesar’s victorious siege of the Gallic forces in 52BC.
Whether aimed at Google or not, the iPad trend has certainly captured analysts, investors and executives at the Morgan Stanley conference, where a good portion of delegates (including Mr Murdoch) can be spotted tapping away at the Apple tablet during its sessions. (The FT was unable to ascertain how many were taking notes and how many were playing Angry Birds HD.)
And in spite of concerns about tablets’ cannibalisation of newspapers, Alesia isn’t the extent of News Corp’s plans for the devices. In the US, the Daily – a new news app for tablets – is nearing completion, Mr Murdoch said.
“There are two tablet-based projects [within News Corp]. There is ongoing work around a tablet-based publication, I will give you more details around that in the short term, in the next few months. That’s largely a US… tablet-only product.”
This iPad newspaper is already hoovering up talent in New York, reportedly luring the New Yorker’s music critic, the head of Viacom’s digital division and former editors from the New York Times and Post.
Clearly News Corp feels that this is a serious enough proposition to invest in new editorial staff as well as technology, rather than simply recycling stories from its existing papers. It’s also in discussions with Apple about subscriptions on the device, haggling over duration, revenue shares, fees and customer data ownership.
“We think it’s a great format because the tablet in general lends itself to a type of journalism that is really new,” said Mr Murdoch. “The topography of a tablet, the multitouch screens, little ones and big ones, not just the iPad but around the way, we think it’s very exciting. These really are becoming our flagship products, even though they are very much in their infancy.”