October 13, 2010
A Sad Pack of Dogs
A tad old, this Bruce Page article still pertains:
Today [May 2009] the Sun (three million) and Mirror together sell about four million, as against the Mirror’s 1960s five-million peak: a secular decline of 25 per cent (continuing still), while Britain’s population grew 25 per cent. The News of the World, finding no parasite-host in its Sunday marketplace, has declined more simply, sales having halved under Murdoch control. Rupert the circulation mastermind is a myth as frail as Keith the upright war reporter.This represents an important qualification of the "newspapers make a profit by selling readers to advertisers" rule: sometimes it really is only about (perceived) political influence. See also this FAIR article, also a tardy citation, reporting on Murdoch's sale of right-wing fanzine The Weekly Standard.
Mostly, his newspapers are a sad pack of dogs, especially the New York Post and The Times of London – absurd vanity sheets by any defensible rules, much as Newscorp’s accounts veil their losses...
But dogs have their functions. First, even in decline, the British tabloids generate vast cash flow, essential to Newscorp’s financial vitality. Second, all the papers, profitable or not, are business accessories of a unique type. They have always been politically deliverable: enabling Murdoch to extract from governments in Australia, America and Britain free passes against regulation, designed to sustain media diversity and independence — printed and electronic. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were his best-known playmates, but leaders of the Australian Labor Party (specially inclined to fancy that they were exploiting Murdoch) must not be forgotten.
Newscorp’s rise to television power was a major subplot in the four-decade deregulation epic, now tardily recognized as an unshackling of Caliban. Its dynamics explain Murdoch’s unremitting circulation losses. To be deliverable, a newspaper (or TV show) must be predictable. Then you may manage (even stabilize) its decline, but you mustn’t expect organic growth. If you’re doing fealty to a bunch of politicians, nothing sucks worse than your staff exposing their misdemeanors – even accidentally – however beguiling for the readers. There are some rib-tickling instances in Harry Evans’ account of editing The Times while Boss Rupert courted the Thatcher administration. Papers actually were selling fast – but numerous editions agonized Downing Street. Agony communicated itself to Rupert, and firing Harry was the only cure.
The extent to which the powerful could rely on other media bosses predictably to deliver their assets is often exaggerated. Certainly, the old monsters like Hearst, Northcliffe and Beaverbrook were driven by unpredictable – indeed, barmy – passions of their own. But Rupert is the supreme pragmatist. Barking right is the default state of his own politics: however, these can be readily overwritten any time there’s a deal to do. It may be worth discussing whether he really likes running moribund newspapers. But the commercial point is that politicians love them.