Amid the crying of foul and media hype surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World scandal, a fundamental fact seems to have been lost. That is, before Mr. Murdoch came along and almost single-handedly saved it, the newspaper industry as we know it was dying an ignominious death.
To wit, Mr. Murdoch’s purchase (at a significant premium) of the Wall Street Journal in 2007 sparked a dying operation the original owners just could not afford to keep anymore. Several other newspaper organizations have not been so lucky. Perhaps the most incredible decline in recent years was the Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, which now languishes in bankruptcy after a breathtakingly swift decline. In 2009, national newspaper ad revenue fell an astonishing 27 percent amid a mass advertiser exodus to online media outlets. Since 2000, print circulation has dropped substantially. The newsprint industry is undoubtedly undergoing a painful and costly transformation - one that requires entrepreneurs with ambition and deep pockets to drive forward.
The newspaper industry, lest we forget, has always been controversial. Many times throughout history, corporate barons have attempted to control the media to grab personal power and financial dominance. In fact, newspapers, like sports teams, have always been the envy of the mega-rich who yearn to imprint their stamp on the public’s consciousness. There has always been a tenuous relationship among reporters attempting to report the news accurately and fairly, and the sensationalism that sells copy. With increasingly fewer eyeballs buying print anymore, and with bloggers and social-media platforms taking up the space once occupied by the mighty newsmen and women, the newsrooms have suffered draconian cutbacks in recent years.
The point here is that while Mr. Murdoch’s operations might have put journalism second to business concerns, it is also his quest for power that might end up saving the industry. News-making is by its very nature a creative and deliberative process. But because it is news, it is driven by the urgency of deadlines and editorial control that directly feeds the bottom line. The liberal media has had it great for the past quarter-century or so, when newspapers were forced by social and cultural dynamics to actually pay more attention to the quality and accuracy of their reporting.
To be sure, some great reporters thrived in this era - notably, Bob Woodward, Edna Buchanan and A.J. Liebling. But today, with so many sources, so many outlets and a much, much wider global news platform, it now takes more than a great reporter to make news. It takes a great news organization. And creating such an entity may require a person of uncanny, even reckless ambition.
Rupert Murdoch is undoubtedly such a person. For decades, he relentlessly pursued a vast media empire, and was often met with existential threats along the way - crushing debt, media regulations, scandal and intrigue. But in the end, he got what he wanted - the Wall Street Journal, the crown jewel of business journalism. He could not have just been in it for the money. There are much less perilous ways for someone with his business acumen to gain wealth. Above all, he wanted power. He wanted the power to control what the public sees and hears. He wanted the power to influence the political establishment. And he has been willing to pay the cost.
In the end, Mr. Murdoch’s ambition may severely weaken him. But the powerful media organization he created will probably stand the test of time. Let us remember that everyone serves a purpose - even the monopolist, the media mogul or the hated Washington politician. It is ultimately through their actions, like those of the Carnegies, Mellons and Vanderbilts, that great institutions get built. While it is true, their time will come and go, just like the dinosaurs. We should not waste so much of our time railing against them that we fail to recognize the opportunities they have enabled.
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