Kara Swisher

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Project Alesia: News Corp.'s Roman Battle Cry–Does That Cast Googlers as the Gauls? (Plus Video!)

Alesia-vercingetorix-jules-cesar

While Internet companies such as Google use baked goods as names for their key strategic initiatives–recent ones related to its Android mobile operating system were called Donut and Eclair, for example–aggressive media giant News Corp. is definitely not going for sweetness in its unusual selection of a code name for its high-profile digital content effort.

That would be Project Alesia, a moniker that comes from a vicious siege from ancient times widely considered to be one of the more decisive battles in history.

And that is apparently what top News Corp. (NWS) execs think is the best way to describe their plans for stopping the decimation of premium content in the digital age and transforming their business to take advantage of new means of distribution, according to numerous sources BoomTown spoke to this week about the unusual name.

“It takes a lot of determination to succeed in what is one of the biggest challenges newspaper and all media has ever faced,” explained one source. “So, the real path to success will require ingenuity and staying on course over time…which was critical to that military victory.”

Interestingly, said several sources, the Project Alesia name was picked by James Murdoch, chairman and CEO of Europe and Asia for News Corp.

Widely considered the heir apparent to his father, News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch is apparently a dedicated reader and student of Roman history.

But it has actually been the elder Murdoch who has been cast as the obvious general so far, conducting a recent series of public verbal attacks on Internet targets, especially Google (GOOG).

He has accused the search giant of “stealing” content, for example, while other News Corp. execs have echoed his gibes in various high-profile forums.

But James Murdoch has been a key player behind the scenes in the digital strategy, several sources said, an effort that also includes News Corp. Chief Digital Officer Jon Miller and Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton.

(Full disclosure: News Corp. unit Dow Jones owns this site.)

Of this top group, it is James Murdoch–who has slowly been emerging as a more high-profile player, especially internationally–who found inspiration in the past.

Alesia_watercolor

To understand why, you’ll first need a short and truncated history lesson, which I culled from a variety of sources online and off:

Taking place in September 52 BC in what is now France, the Siege of Alesia (also referred to as the Battle of Alesia) pitted Rome’s famed leader, Julius Caesar, against the Gallic tribes under the unified command of Vercingétorix of Averni.

More important–besides being cited as one of the best uses of siege warfare and “circumvallation” (see more about this below)–the battle of Alesia is considered a turning point in the bitter wars conducted by the Roman Republic to tame the Gauls, who had finally united as a single force in opposition to the Roman invasion.

The hard-fought win–in a battle where the Roman army was outnumbered five-to-one, outside a hilltop fort in Alesia–is often credited with reinvigorating Rome’s power over Gaul. After the loss, Gaul became a province of the Roman empire and was pretty much subdued for the next 500 years.

Alesia is often cited as one of Caesar’s greatest military victories and the fallout from it later led to his ascension to ultimate power in Rome (which was soon followed by his infamous assassination).

That’s not the ultimate end News Corp. is envisioning, of course, sticking with Alesia’s main themes of “perseverance” and innovation, said several people with knowledge of the digital content efforts.

And, no surprise, in the digital battles between traditional media and interlopers from the Web, guess who has been cast as noble Caesar and who plays the role of marauding heathens?

You know, the ones who even cast their women and children out of the fort into the middle of the siege when food started to run out? That would apparently be the Googlers of Silicon Valley, although if it were them, the food would be organic!

400px-SiegeAlesia

Not all comparisons are the same, said a source. For example, consider circumvallation, which is essentially the building of a series of encircling fortified walls around the enemy. Contravallation is also also part of the strategy, to protect from attacks by enemy reinforcements attacking from the outside.

One could easily imagine that this means creating pay walls around premium content or de-indexing it from search sites like Google, both of which News Corp. has publicly talked about doing.

Not so!

“Traditional media companies are interested in investing in innovation too, so the idea of just putting up walls around content is a red herring,” said the source. “The idea is to find new ways of distributing media that also makes money, because why should journalism in [digital] ones and zeros be any different?”

Of course, with new stats showing sites like Google News and Yahoo (YHOO) News as the place consumers are going to get more and more of their news, that is a big issue in a longer fight, which will grind on for a very long time and well before any side can ever declare victory.

And here is a clip from a 2001 movie, “Vercingétorix,” about the Siege of Alesia, not made by News Corp.’s 20th Century Fox Hollywood studio, starring that actor dude from “Highlander” (aka my fave movie of all time). It does not end well for Google, oops, the Gauls:

[The 1899 painting at the top is by Lionel-Noël Royer.]


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work