What is Rupert Murdoch Doing to Journalism?

Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul whose News Corp produces some of the great scourges of liberalism (Fox News, WSJ op-ed page, and a global panoply of magazines and papers), is the subject of a wonderful New York Magazine profile by Gabriel Sherman. Rather than mellowing with age, Murdoch is waging a three-front war, battling the New York Times for Big Apple dominance, Google for online revenue, and his children for control of the company. I suggest you read the whole piece, because it's really quite good -- and Sherman is one of the best media journalists out there -- but I did come away observing a particular tension within the Murdoch brand. (I hesitate to wade too deep in these waters, knowing there are some writers like Michael Wolff who have successfully turned Murdochology into a hobby if not primary vocation, but here I go...)

The tension with Murdoch is that he truly seems to respect journalism as both a weapon and a craft. Everybody recognizes that Murdoch likes to do battle with headlines and ad rates, but there's an almost quaint "instinctual belief in the power and importance of newspapers and the wherewithal to continue to invest in them." Murdoch overpaid for the Journal by half (taking into account subsequent write-downs), spent $80 million to spruce up WSJ's headquarters and invested tens of millions of dollars in a new NYC-centric section. His bid for the Journal is called a wayward luxury purchase -- "the worst deal he ever did" borne from an "an Ahab-like obsession" -- but what outsiders call a wayward purchase, journalists call a pay check and readers call a paper. Supporters argue that he saves newspapers by injecting them with verve. Critics will argue that he "saves" his papers by destroying their credibility. Either way, in an age where newspapers are dying, Murdoch had the audacity to believe otherwise.

Even if his faith in dead trees is old fashioned, Murdoch looks to be the future of journalism, in at least two ways. First, as the decline of classified and ads erodes newspaper revenues, large papers feel pressured to turn to moguls. I'm thinking now of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim's 7 percent ownership of the New York Times Company (7 percent and growing, as rumors have it.) Second, his once distinctive flair -- the flashy headlines, the juicy photos, the winking (or sometimes bludgeoning) partisan tilt that for years was a staple of European papers rather than American -- turns out to be quite imitable, a return to the yellower days of journalism. Online, the style's genealogy winds its way through Drudge, the Huffington Post and many blogs. On television, MSNBC has found fortune providing a mirror to Fox News' rightward tilt. Somber objectivity is on the wane, for better or worse -- and there are fine arguments for both -- and the rise of the Internet has coincided with, or catalyzed, the rise of voice in journalism. Whether or not the Murdochization of the news is a good or bad thing is up for debate. What's not up for debate is that it's becoming Murdoch world, and we're all living in it.