Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation seem determined to completely reshape news as we know it. The Fox News channel now leads in cable news. The New York Post is now the largest city’s largest weekday paper. And now, their newly acquired Wall Street Journal is about to wrestle with the New York Times for control of the “national conversation.” His Fox Business Channel is taking on CNBC. Rupert Murdoch clearly has a vision for news domination, but what might it be?
Murdoch is now surveying the scene and can barely believe his luck. He is simply a businessman seeking to make a profit by focusing on the news business, across all ways that news is delivered. But strangely, this makes him unique.
Network TV news’ parent companies are mostly in the entertainment business. They did not originally launch news programs to make a profit, but to prove to the federal government that their licenses to broadcast profitable entertainment programming should be renewed based on responsible corporate citizenship. Newspapers think they are in the newspaper business, if they think they are in business at all. Decades without serious competition have allowed journalists to engage in the fantasy of being part of a powerful branch of government, and allowed their bosses, many of whom are heirs of founding families, to fancy themselves benevolent, enlightened royalty. They have been at liberty to disregard, if not disdain their readers’ interests, and increase profits by outsourcing to wire services news content that for competitive reasons might have been better kept in-house and proprietary.
Businessman Murdoch knows that success is about keeping customers happy — an obvious idea that is thoroughly rejected by the journalism dogma that pervades his competitors. This dogma insists that audiences are not customers at all, but “citizens” who must be provided with a pure stream of objective truths that only journalists know how to create. Moreover, this truth-flow is thought to be so precious and necessary to this country’s survival that journalists must be independent of pressures from anyone or anything — no pressures allowed from government, employers, business competition, corporate takeovers, advertisers, even the demands of their own readers with their questionable judgment and taste for sensationalism.
Unlike today’s journalists, Murdoch will respect his audiences’ tastes and seek to fulfill their needs. If he sees an opportunity, he will not hesitate to offer news that is sensational, titillating, or compatible with viewers’ worldviews. He will provide them with handsome men and strikingly beautiful women to look at. He will draw them in and make them feel good about being a part of a community, delivering news that makes them proud to be an American, a stockholder, or a conservative. He will not run news that is negative, cynical, and despairing, or that runs-down cherished institutions to which his audiences identify.
Murdoch knows that the decades-old supply chain through which we receive our news is about to snap, and he is replacing it with his own. This chain once began with stories originated by the NY Times, which passed to the TV networks and wire services, then to metro TV stations and newspapers, which served as “middlemen” to carry news the last 50 miles to our homes. But some day, the chain will begin with stories from the Wall Street Journal, which will travel over the Internet directly into people’s homes without ever leaving News Corp properties — Fox News for news, Fox Films for entertainment, FoxSports for sports, MySpace for news of family and friends, and your local Fox TV affiliate for hyperlocal news.
Your local Fox affiliate’s web site will be your portal to news as small as your neighborhood and as large as the world. It will replace your newspaper and the other local TV stations. Their reporters will penetrate your community institutions and their salespeople will find ad revenue in places that no one ever thought to look before, like all those small retailers that never had enough money to buy a TV or newspaper ad.
Since Murdoch was born 76 years ago and not yesterday, he knows that there is a powerful force that will envy his news domination and may seek to destroy him — the federal government. That’s why he has been regularly buying indulgences from the political class, such as contributing $500,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative, hosting a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, and inviting Al Gore to deliver a talk on climate change.
Fortunately, Americans have nothing to fear should Rupert Murdoch’s grandiose plan to dominate news succeed. In fact, he cannot succeed without providing the news-consuming public what it wants. In the end, it may be an Australian-born magnate who shows us how to provide news the American way.
Steve Boriss blogs at The Future of News. He is employed by Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and teaches a class called “The Future of News.” He holds an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan.