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05.10.09

What Murdoch Can Learn From Hearst

Rupert Murdoch's pursuit of a paid online content model — first reported in the Daily Beast — indicates that the Aussie media tycoon understands his newspaper business' dire predicament. David Nasaw, author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst reveals the cautionary lessons the first great press baron can teach the last one.

They were the only sons of rich men who owned newspapers. Both left home to attend the best schools, did not do terribly well, returned home, went into the newspaper business, and did terribly, terribly well. They built newspaper empires, then audaciously and against the advice of their advisors, expanded into new media, amassing millions and acquiring substantial political influence. They hobnobbed with presidents and prime ministers on several continents, positioned themselves on the right (but not too far right), and made money with each new venture. Only as they approached their middle 70s was their forward progress halted during a worldwide depression.Their advisors urged them to shed losing newspaper assets and anoint successors or, at least, recognize their mortality and prepare for succession. They refused.

Will Rupert realize before it’s far too late that if his newspapers are to have any chance of survival in the Obama era, he’s got to make the sort of changes Hearst refused to?

God bless Murdoch for his purchase of the Wall Street Journal for a price far in excess of what it was worth—and his continuing publication of giant loss-leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.Two cheers for the last publisher standing.

But what a flawed hero is our Rupert.Like Hearst, he was never a pioneer or much of an innovator as a newspaper publisher. Just as Hearst learned from Joseph Pulitzer how to put out a reader-friendly, sensationalist, crusading, visually-exciting, cartoon- and comic-filled, overstuffed broadsheet, so did Murdoch borrow and then improve the racy, reality-challenged, one sale at a time, over the top Fleet Street tabloid.Achieving almost overnight success as newspaper publishers, both men held tight to their formulas, paying little attention to the changing demographics, needs, and desires of their reading publics. Their myopia vis-à-vis their newspapers was and, in Murdoch’s case, is as astounding as their forward-looking adventurism in other media.

As circulation and advertising plummeted through the 1930s, Hearst held tight to his once winning formula and refused to make changes in substance or style, refused even to jettison poor old tired Arthur Brisbane whose editorials continued to mar his front pages for years after Brisbane had anything left to say. The result of Hearst's rigid reluctance to adjust to the times was disaster, default, and the disappearance of the Hearst chain of big-city papers, most of which fell long ago, with the biggest one still standing—in San Francisco—on very wobbly legs. Murdoch's papers are also wobbling, with the banks and Wall Street nibbling at his heels, but they're still alive and, with a bit of the same daring he's shown in the past in other media, it's just possible he could turn them around.

Hearst reacted poorly to the tabloid invasion of the 1920s and the onslaught of Depression in the 1930s.He moved to the right—and then stayed there—while his readers were moving in the opposite direction.His opposition to FDR and the New Deal, screamed aloud in front-page signed editorials and viciously slanted news coverage, was so extreme, so intemperate, that it almost forced his readers to choose between the publisher and the president. And they did.His media empire, like Murdoch’s, built on debt survived only as long as his circulation was large enough to convince the bankers that they could safely lend him new money to cover old loans.Hearst’s major debt was to the Canadian wood pulp mills which provided him with endless—and, it appeared, endlessly expanding—rivers of white newsprint.When the bankers, though probably in sympathy with his anti-Roosevelt tirades, recognized the impact they were having on circulation, advertising, and his bottom line, refused to lend him money to refinance the debt, his media empire came crashing down upon him.

As a historian, I’m a whiz at predicting the past.But the future is another story. Will Murdoch hold on to his newspapers as long as he can, as the losses mount and Wall Street trembles?Will his empire crash as Hearst’s did—only to be resurrected and restructured with a smaller footprint after his death?Will Rupert realize before it’s far too late that if his newspapers are to have any chance of survival in the Obama era, he’s got to make the sort of changes Hearst refused to? Will he, as Hearst did not, cede control to a new generation of editors, publishers, designers, reporters, columnists who will save his papers by radically altering the way they look, the way they read, the audiences and advertisers they reach out to, and, perhaps most importantly, what they have to say?

I dare not speak about Murdoch’s non-US holdings, but one doesn’t have to be much of a seer or sage to understand that his major properties here are badly out of touch with the zeitgeist. The Wall Street Journal remains a vital national newspaper, perhaps even better than it was before he bought it, but can it survive—as a national cheerleader for and chronicler of Wall Street and the business sector—without shifting its focus, its editorial emphasis, and its emphasis on financial news? Adding a sports page and putting some “general” news on the front page is surely not enough. To do more would require a huge investment in news staff, which no one foresees, and an entirely different, much more skeptical, less celebratory perspective on the workings (and dysfunctions) of twenty-first century global capitalism.

And the New York Post. Before we proclaim print dead, let’s imagine what a smart, hip, sophisticated, witty, moderately up-scale, mass circulation tabloid might look like, a daily newspaper for the new generation of news junkies who are gravitating to blogs and cable news shows that cater to them in style and substance.Now pick up a copy of the paper which endorsed John McCain on September 8th, two months before the election, and made its own headlines recently with its grossly unfunny dead ape cartoon.Enough said.

Rupert, we recommend a do-over.Instead of losing tens of millions of dollars pushing your 1950s relic of a rag to an audience who can get the same thing for free at the subway stations, take a chance, be as innovative as you have been with your satellites, recreate your tabloid.Get rid of the old-school, old right, grimmest-reaper, irony-challenged Aussies and the tiresome columnists.Hire Rachel Maddow—or her writers and editors—or someone with a news sense and a sense of humor to inject some life into your Post.Beef up your investigative reporting, expand your news hole beyond the dreary few pages of slash-and-slasher stories you now cover, give more space to the wondrously bizarre politics of state and city. Move left, old man, or at least, move into the 21st century. If you're going to fail, do it with the daring and defiance that marked your triumphs. Better to fail with a smile and a smirk, then a weary whimper.

David Nasaw is a historian, biographer, and the Distinguished Professor of History and Director for the Humanities at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His books include The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst and Andrew Carnegie.