In Praise of Rupert Murdoch

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Say what you will about the conservative media mogul, his first love is journalism -- and journalists.

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Reuters

When News Corp slashed executive bonuses this month and attributed that to lousy executive judgment in its core business -- in contrast to widespread detachment of performance from compensation -- I was reminded why I converted the Gospel of Rupertism, which is less about money than product. To someone like me -- a recovering journalist whose job as a national fellowships director involves helping a new generation find its footing in the quaking bog where digital and "old" journalism meet -- Murdoch's concentration on what is being delivered to readers, rather than how, or at a predetermined profit margin, is as refreshing now as ever. Especially now, when the news about him and his company is unremittingly bad.

I interviewed him only once, in 1969. The Sun, a rambunctious London tabloid complete with a topless "Page Three Girl," was considered a goner. Murdoch bought it anyway, prompting much punditry about even lower "standards" en route to failure in a crowded market. My piece in Time reported all that. Most if it panned out, but not so much the kaput part: The Sun became Britain's biggest daily, with a circulation of 2.6 million.

Murdoch assumed unfriendliness from "the liberal establishment press" and he surely wouldn't care about my unlikely conversion, which was inspired by his large, unrequired check to someone else.

In the summer of 1985, a late pal of mine named David E. Davis, had noisily resigned as editor and publisher of Car and Driver after "the suits [CBS] bought it," to avoid being handcuffed to the nearest cost-cut. He was the most influential journalist covering the world's largest industry, and had every reason to expect supplicant publishers to trample the grass to his door. Instead, "I mowed the lawn three times a week," as he described months of joblessness.

When his home phone finally rang one morning at 7.30, he told me, a soft voice said "'Good morning Mr. Davis. I'm calling for Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch wants to start a magazine about automobiles and would like you to be editor. Would you consider meeting him in New York at 10 tomorrow morning?'"

After 30 minutes with Murdoch, Davis called Jeannie, his wife and business manager. "'It was the shortest meeting of my life,'" she remembers him saying, "'and I'm not sure but I think we have a deal.'" The contract, a few lines on a single page, including this unforgettable passage:

"'If the magazine loses one million dollars in its first year, you will be fired. If it fails to earn one million dollars in its fourth year, you will be fired.'" Other than that, Davis had been told, he would hear very little from Murdoch.

Automobile became a New Yorker of automotive journalism. Instead of traditional gearhead engine specs, it carried narratives by the likes of Jim Harrison, David Halberstam, P.J. O'Rourke and Bruce McCall. Davis was a brave editor. The National Automotive Press Association drew a collective gasp when Davis concluded a keynote address with, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we stand on the shoulders of midgets." He was speaking of the industry, but few missed a reference to then-GM Chairman Roger Smith, who symbolized Detroit's decline and stood five foot, six inches tall. Canceled GM advertising cost the magazine $500,000. Murdoch said nothing.

Automobile had been showing healthy profits (10 percent went to Davis) on a circulation of 500,000. News Corp, however, had stumbled into a liquidity ditch and to stay afloat sold its magazine division. Nothing in the one-page contract mentioned this eventuality, yet Davis did nothing -- not even after being asked to speak for the division at its farewell dinner at New York's 21 Club.

As the Davises dressed for the event, the division chief called. "'Just so you don't have a heart attack on stage,'" he said, "'I need to tell you beforehand that Rupert's going to hand you a check for a million dollars tonight. He doesn't think that having no provision in your contract should stop you from getting from the sale of Automobile what you got from its profits.'"

Davis gave me that report later the same day and I decided right then to bet on Murdoch. I liked how he treated journalists, who are not always the best business minds. Since this includes me, I did what I often do: Ignored logic and experts like my broker ("News Corp? Now? Are you crazy?"), and put every free dollar on the horse named Rupert. It was my best stock bet ever, partly because I sold soon thereafter, concerned about his heirs and succession. But I've since done okay with New York Times when its stock swooned like a December rose, and helped start The Ann, a news monthly distributed in Ann Arbor by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal..

Rupertism isn't about conservative politics or, God knows, about hacking. It's about strong journalism. Between a mogul who's sinned and publishers whose fanatical faith in the Supreme Profit has ruined the quality of all but a handful of "establishment" news operations by sacrificing their editorial staffs, give me the bruiser. We may not like Murdoch's politics or all of his journalism, but it's impossible to deny that it is spirited and finds audiences -- highbrows included.

Right now, the betting is against Murdoch's support for newspapers. True, newspapers still depend on paper products and many investors don't want to be stuck with them. They retain, however, the strongest tradition of news-gathering, which represents the best potential for re-investing in quality reporting, the golden egg of profitable journalism. Murdoch has revivified the Wall Street Journal with a front page that manages attitude without political cant, spirited sports coverage and spiffy arts and weekend sections to go head-to-head with the New York Times. He has invested in fielding foreign bureaus for the Journal where almost every other newspaper has pulled back or closed them all. More broadly, the term "newspaper" already means online as well as onpaper (which ought to be a word, too, these days) and Murdoch himself steered one of the company's largest journalistic bets on The Daily, his iPad-only newspaper.

Stuck with newspapers? Murdoch -- and Warren Buffett, too -- will do just fine, thank you. In their ninth decades, they remember what others have forgotten or ignore -- that over the long haul, vibrant news, printed page included, makes pots of money. Yes, the Internet has turned the world upside down even more than radio did in the 1930's and television 20 years later. But predictions for newspapers were dire then, too. Wrong back when, wrong again now.

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Charles R. Eisendrath is a University of Michigan professor and directs the Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowships and the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists.

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