Rupert makes his move

tHE SALE OF Dow Jones to Murdoch has been greeted by much clucking in the press. Every paper, with the exception of The New York Sun and maybe the Journal itself, seems to have concluded that this is the sad, if inevitable, end to the long, lustrous legacy of a fine journalistic institution. Most columnists point to other supposedly fine papers that were ruined by the man once called the Dirty Digger. Case in point: The Times of London. No one remembers that that gray lady had become pretty frail by the end of the Thomson era. In 1981, when Murdoch took over, the bureau system (which the Times may have invented) was moribund. No longer was there a Times man in every outpost of the Empire serving as an alternative conduit to Whitehall for frustrated foreign ministers. Not that they needed one: the Empire itself was gone.

Nor does anyone who uses the The Times as an example of what Murdoch can do bother to recall that the paper had a string of somewhat patchy, if titled, owners. The founding family, the Walters, sold the paper in 1908 to Alfred Harmsworth, who became Lord Northcliffe. I remember reading in a the paper’s own history of its owners, published the day after the Murdoch sale: “In his latter years Lord Northcliffe was not in his right mind.” This may explain the paper’s embrace in 1920 of the improbable and sickeningly anti-Semetic forgery, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” which The Times never really lived down. Two years later Northcliffe’s heirs sold to, gasp, a foreign-born owner, John Jacob Astor V, who became Lord Astor of Hever and who in the 1930s supported Chamberlain and appeasement. In 1966 the Astors sold to another foreigner, Roy Herbert Thomson, who became Baron Thomson of Fleet only after he gave up his Canadian citizenship (a precedent for Lord Black). The Thomson organization took the drastic step of running news on the front page (instead of ads), but with increasing labor problems, including a long strike at The Times in 1979, they sold it to Murdoch, along with the Sunday Times, which was still run separately.

The Times had long ceased to be the newspaper of record in Britain, but one would gather from recent comparisons that Murdoch’s run was at the same level of cultural depredation as the Rape of the Sabine Women. An objective view of the history suggests otherwise. Left on the course set by these various peers of the realm, The Times would have sunk by 1990 without Murdoch. Some readers may resent the end of the honorifics in the text, or the small space left for the Court Calendar, and I doubt the Queen gets her daily limited edition printed on 100-rag stock, but they do still get a newspaper. And the web site’s recent redesign indicates the dear old thing may survive a bit longer.

Moreover, Fleet Street is largely rid of unions, allowing the great pillar of the left, The Guardian, to pay market rates for journalists and pressmen. (And of course London is rid of Fleet Street, except as a good place for real estate investment, since Rupert moved his newspapers to Wapping in 1986).

No one is saying that the Wall Street Journal would perish soon without Murdoch, but the Journal was on the same glidepath as The Times of London. Once the financial markets and the advertisers decide that you are toast, you are done. And whether or not one can project a future raison d’être for newspapers — on paper or in some convenient digital format — there is no guarantee that any of them will survive the transition. Sentiment is over. E.W. Scripps recently pulled the plug on its hometown daily, The Post, just as Hearst scuttled granddaddy’s flagship, The Examiner.

Murdoch is quiet about his plans, but there it is widely assumed that he will rethink the paper’s roll as one of the three big national dailies, and put new energy into the web site. It doesn’t make much sense to expand the coverage of non-business news, as has been suggested, since the web is filled with wire stories of all kinds. More astute business reporting would probably have more success, starting with a fresh look at Wall Street itself.

Newspapers will not pull out of this mortal glidepath until they get a lot more interesting. This is something that Rupert has understood, presumably from birth. His attitude has always been to damn the institutions and give people what they like. This is what worked for Hearst and Pulitizer, and for Paley and Sarnoff. But today the traditional media polar bears (in newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, music, movies and books) seldom blame the product for their shrinking habitat.

Rupert, like the historical founders of media empire, knows the location of the trigger on this instrument, and he is not a afraid to use it. I was his employee for a couple of years starting in 1978, and, while I won’t indulge in the smarmy anecdotes some defenders have told in recent days (which remind me of Peter Cook’s character, E.L. Whisty, describing Hitler as a “marvelous ballroom dancer”), the fact is that even after 50 years, Rupert gets his people moving. I figured back 25 years ago that he had the names of 2,000 managers in his head at all times, and if he had an idea that might be useful, he would pick up the phone and call one of them. (And if it was the middle of the night in your time zone, you woke up fast.) Now, perhaps, he sends e-mail, and one has to admire the way he picked up MySpace, and . . . China.

These strategic moves were not done without early trials. Few remember the narrow-band portal Murdoch closed without fanfare in the late ’90s (I can’t even remember its name), nor his stinging criticism of China’s restrictions of freedom of speech, which scotched a satellite TV venture. But he kept thinking and kept going.

So, let’s not waste a lot of time wringing our hands about the Wall Street Journal. Murdoch is its best hope. And, if anyone can turn around the news business, he can.

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Don’t think that this is a pitch for a design job. I already tried that—in 1973. Rupert was starting The National Star, and I sent off a package of samples of my tabloid pages. I got a nice note back from the editor, saying that he and Mr. Murdoch and had looked at my work, but decided that the style was rather too “classy” for what they had in mind. I should have framed that letter.

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