In his 80s, with no clear successor, the media mogul and his spun-off newpaper operation are in a precarious position
Matthew Parris went to the Orwell prizegiving the other day and suddenly saw red. Chris Mullin MP was giving a speech lauding fine investigative journalism – like that of this year’s winner, Andrew Norfolk of the Times – which he firmly asserted was achieved “despite” the efforts of newspaper proprietors. “What sneery, snivelling, ignorant, leftie rubbish,” wrote Parris.
“Who does he think pays for Norfolk’s investigations, or for my columns? Does he know nothing about the losses being clocked up by quality newspapers all over the world? … Does he realise how precarious now is the whole future of daily newspapers in Britain?” Call it, on second thoughts, a Rupert red mist.
These are testing times for star performers like Parris. Over in New York last week the old, soiled master of News Corp revels was unveiling his “new News Corp”, otherwise a distinctly vulnerable collection of papers from around the globe, many of which have proved a longstanding licence to lose his money. The Times, Sunday Times, New York Post and Australian are not profitable, to put it mildly. No wonder Murdoch’s new chief executive, Robert Thomson, pledges “relentless cost-cutting” across the shrivelled empire.
There’s a balance-sheet bonne bouche of $2bn and a wiping away of debts that will help News Corp mark two ride briefly high when it goes solo and public – though no longer listed in London – at the end of June. But there will also be no more lush, adjacent pastures of satellite TV or Hollywood blockbusters to assure US shareholder peace when loss-making papers have to be supported. 21st Century Fox won’t be indulging the boss’s little foibles any longer. Once the presses roll, he’s on his own.
Murdoch says his papers are “undervalued and underdeveloped”. Thomson (who used to edit the Times) says “print is still a particularly powerful platform”. This is the clearest possible test of their faith. If News Corp 2 can’t make it through the night, then all Parris’s worst fears come true. Murdoch may be non-executive chair of the enterprise. His family stockholding and reputation may still give him great influence, reputational or direct. But now, ploughing deeper into his 80s and surrounded by New York board colleagues who don’t share his love of printers’ ink, the vulnerability is obvious.
This is a fractious, uncertain empire now: a game of thrones as well as Wall Street. It will be governed, frankly, by how the markets behave. If they don’t like Rupert’s underdeveloped and undervalued babies, then the pressure will mount inexorably – and wash over to damage his rule of the film and TV giant. He hasn’t a son who can take up this burden. Hacking finished James’s ambitions in that direction. There is no frontline succession.
Perhaps the digital world will provide some answers – though his tablet-only Daily perished rather too fast for comfort. Perhaps subscription revenue can, in time, begin to make up for the print advertising streams running into the sand. Place no bets: this is precarious, edge-of-the-seat stuff, just as Parris perceives.
But I wish Thomson was slightly less keen on CEO-speak rhetoric (“We will boldly try new businesses and models, unafraid to learn, confident of overall success together”). And I’m especially anxious about the replacement News Corp logo, written in a sweeping semblance of Rupert’s fair hand. Does that mean he’s absolutely in charge – or only that he will still have to pay the bills at the end of a bruising day?
■ Newsweek used to sell 3.3m copies per edition. Even when it was sold for a dollar, then folded in with Tina Brown’s Daily Beast in a digital merger last December, there were more than a million customers out there wanting their old print fix. So the story that Newsweek online was blazing a path into the future rather than lurching towards oblivion seemed to have some validity. But today? What’s left is up for sale again: think 50 cents. The owners want to “concentrate” on the Beast instead.
Sometimes going online-only is the sensible thing to do; but more often than not, it can seem like euthanasia with a buoyant press release.