London’s media elites—at least those who don’t work for him—have long loved to hate Rupert Murdoch. Isn’t it strange, then, that his 36-year-old son James should emerge as a champion of the newspaper industry?
Not really. “Rupert Murdoch is the best newspaper owner in the world,” says Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism at City University in London and a former editor of the Daily Mirror (not a Murdoch paper). “He loves newspapers—and he understands how they work.” James may be a chip off the much-maligned block. “People say he doesn’t love newspapers as much as his father,” says Greenslade. “There’s just no evidence that that’s true.”
Indeed, the evidence so far points in the other direction. As the London-based CEO of News Corporation’s Asian and European operations since late 2007, James Murdoch runs Britain’s largest newspaper group, News International. Its four big titles—the Times, the Sunday Times, the Sun, and the News of the World—have a total circulation of nearly 8 million copies in a country of 60 million. Much like in the U.S., British papers have seen dramatic newsroom bloodlettings, but when it was News International’s turn in February, they cut just 65 editorial jobs across the four papers, compared with deep slashes—1 in every 4.5 jobs—on the commercial side. Murdoch’s message was clear: We’re betting on journalism.
James Murdoch’s battle plan: Whenever the newspaper shakeout ends, News International’s competitors will either be out of business or, having cut staff drastically, substantially weaker. Having protected his editorial assets, Murdoch’s titles will be in a position to attract people who still want to read.
That move raised eyebrows. The newspaper business in Britain has not been ravaged in the way it has been in the U.S., but it’s likely to get worse as advertising craters and the economy, lagging behind that of the United States, sinks deeper into recession. In America, Rupert Murdoch’s affection for print has cost him dearly. Earlier this year, News Corp. took $8.4 billion in writedowns, including $3 billion on its newspaper unit. That includes Dow Jones & Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, which Murdoch bought in 2007. The price that Murdoch paid for Dow Jones, over $5 billion, looks awfully high in hindsight.
This turbulence hasn’t stopped James from pushing his father’s longtime print strategy—the “last man standing,” as a former editor at a Murdoch paper calls it. The enemy of a successful newspaper is not the other papers, according to the thesis, but people who don’t want to read. James Murdoch’s battle plan: Whenever the newspaper shakeout ends, News International’s competitors will either be out of business or, having cut staff drastically, substantially weaker. Having protected his editorial assets, Murdoch’s titles will be in a position to attract people who still want to read.
“You have to love a challenge, don’t you?” Murdoch told an audience at the Monaco Media Forum last year. Despite the wreckage around his industry, Murdoch believes newspapers can adapt and thrive. “I actually think the newspaper business is one of the great opportunities for innovation in modern media,” he said in Monaco.
Britain is an able proving ground for Murdoch’s line of attack. The British newspaper industry is hardly immune to what is, with a few exceptions, a global crisis. Greenslade estimates that more than 50 regional newspapers in Britain have gone under over the past year. Of the 20 or so daily and Sunday national newspapers in the United Kingdom, a small number are under real threat and could fail in the next year.
James Murdoch himself is a beneficiary of the “last man standing.” His older siblings, Lachlan and Elisabeth, have both moved on to pursue their own business interests after bumpy experiences inside News Corp. James himself got off to a shaky start at his father’s company: A photographer caught him dozing off at a press conference when he was a 15-year-old intern at the Sydney Mirror. In 1995, he left Harvard without graduating (hey, so did William Randolph Hearst and Bill Gates). He started up Rawkus Records, a hip-hop label, which was then sold to … News Corp.
Murdoch joined News Corp. in 1996 when he was appointed chairman of the company’s Festival Records label. He went on to take charge of News Corp.’s Internet holdings before moving to Hong Kong as chairman and CEO of the conglomerate’s Asian satellite-TV business, Star. His next stop was London, where he ran BSkyB, the British pay-TV business, defying expectations of a skeptical media community and winning praise for his stewardship before moving on to his current position in 2007.
All of which leaves James well-positioned within News Corp. He may be considered as a sucessor for Peter Chernin, Rupert Murdoch’s longtime No. 2, who plans to leave News Corp. when his contract expires in June. As things stand, James seems in line to succeed his father at the very top of News Corp. when the time comes. Meanwhile, if he can help protect his newspapers from the onslaught of declining advertising and circulation, he might get better press in London—and provide a blueprint for an industry crying for one.
Stryker McGuire is an American journalist working in London. McGuire is a contributing editor at Newsweek magazine, where he was a correspondent, bureau chief and editor for 30 years; the founding editor of International Quarterly, and an associate at Lombard Street Research, an economics consultancy in the City of London.