Can Murdoch Hold It Together?

Rupert Murdoch, the controversial publishing and broadcast magnate, has certainly been a busy, busy man. Whether he’s testifying before Congress or penning heartfelt editorials in the Wall Street Journal, he is clearly a man on a mission. It’s easy to feel some sympathy for him, since the problems he is attempting to wrestle to the ground involve shoving a lot of snakes back into a rapidly shrinking basket. His chief task will be to maintain financial solvency in an industry which is beset with multiple demons attacking on all sides.

Murdoch cut his teeth during the salad days of print journalism, starting out with a couple of newspapers in his Australian homeland. From there he gradually expanded his empire across the globe during a career of aggressive, take-no-prisoners business maneuvers. Today that empire is facing challenges on multiple fronts. The age of the blog -- and digital journalism in general -- is one of the chief culprits. While the bloggers have largely failed in finding a way to monetize their online content much above cottage industry levels, this doesn’t mean that they haven’t cut into the profits of the dead tree dinosaurs.

The story of Murdoch’s potentially quixotic struggle is eerily reminiscent of Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson’s prescient 2004 web classic, Epic 2014. In it, they predicted that the New York Times would close down its online publishing efforts after losing a 2011 Supreme Court battle over control of their content with Googlezon, a so-far fictional combination of Amazon and Google which gloms all of their news stories and republishes them in formats more friendly to the user. The “Google Grid” they envision allows users to tailor their web-based news consumption to just the bloggers, talking heads and would-be journalists who serve up “news” that agrees with their pre-formed ideas. And it’s all done for free.

But it’s not just the pesky kids and their computers battling Rupert Murdoch. He’s also fending off two opposing but equally dangerous threats from the government. On the one hand, he wants the government to keep their noses out of his business and allow him to own as many newspapers and television networks he cares to in any given market. But at the same time, he is fearful of the possibility of the federal government “saving” print media by financially supporting it. (In another life, Murdoch might well have invented the scariest phrase in the English language: “Hi! We’re from the government and we’re here to help!”)

So how does this powerful media mogul plan to make a dysfunctional and apparently unprofitable enterprise function in the 21st century? According to his recent remarks, he will focus on  his ability to “give people the news they want.” While this has traditionally been a sure-fire path to success in other areas of marketing, that one phrase alone should be enough to send chills up the spines of serious consumers of current events.