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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.

The concept brings us back to Sloan and Thompson’s Epic 2014 where EPIC -- the bastard child of the Google Grid -- has consumed the globe’s media presence, allowing everyone to “tailor” their news consumption to suit their own needs. The authors describe it as follows:

At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a new view of the world, deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything ever available before. But at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensationalized. But EPIC is what we wanted. It is what we chose.

Some have already drawn parallels between Murdoch’s vision and Fox News Channel, which he already owns. Pundits such as Allahpundit at Hot Air have frequently described Fox as a “much needed counterbalance” to the infectious liberalism running rampant through much of the rest of the old guard. But to be fully honest with ourselves, to accept that rationale is tantamount to saying that we really don’t mind media bias in journalism, providing it’s the flavor of bias we prefer with our morning coffee.

Newspapers may well be on their way out, and television news -- beyond the increasingly prevalent “opinion journalism” -- might not be far behind. And if they go, no matter what you may think of the biased nature of the product, the world we political news junkies inhabit will be a poorer place for it.

As much as we may not want to admit it, every Tom, Dick, and Harriet with a blog or a decent quality digital camera is not actually a journalist. And we should not be deceived by the success of young entrepreneurs such as the two who recently broke the ACORN story wide open. They produced a fine product and did the nation a service, but they went into it with an agenda. They were there to bust that organization out of the game.

The fact that the “victims” at ACORN fully deserved their fate (in the form of lost credibility and government funding) does not detract from the fact that the journalists in question were not playing by the rules of any even, journalistic playing field.

Will Murdoch succeed where all those around him seem to be failing? It’s certainly possible, and his track record would indicate that he can do it if anyone can. But pass or fail, the sphere of traditional journalism is fading away as we watch. It may be “what we chose” after all. But one of the oldest bits of wisdom on the planet deals with having a care in what we wish for.