OFF THE GRID

This Is Rupert's Last Stand: Making You Pay

Aug 6, 09 | 8:43 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Is Rupert Murdoch too old to matter? In the face of the worst downturn in the history of the newspaper business—what everybody except Rupert believes is a structural rather than cyclical decline—he bought the Wall Street Journal, built the world’s largest newspaper printing plant just outside of London, and is still talking about buying the New York Times. Yesterday, his company, News Corp., posted the biggest losses in its history. In response, my Uncle Rupert—who as recently as a year ago, when we last spoke, had yet to go, unassisted, onto the Internet—announced that he would shortly make his newspapers available online only if you paid for them.

Well, I'll say this, he’s swimming against the tide.

His uphill fight is probably even greater than it might appear. Not only is he, among all media executives, the most technically disinclined (actually, totally illiterate), but his company, of all the big media enterprise, is the most technically backward and maladroit. He may now employ more reporters than anyone else in the world, but they use the oldest computers. He may have some of the world’s most trafficked news sites, but they are also the slowest and most inept. Technology, at News Corp., has always been regarded as one of those things, like fancy hotels, or long-form writing, that are not part of the company culture.

Nor is Rupert suggesting, at this point, a turnaround in that culture. He is not, all of a sudden, going to spend hugely on technology upgrades.

Instead, what he is going to do is the thing he has always done: buck convention, offend sensibilities, and not pussyfoot around. "I believe that if we're successful, we'll be followed fast by other media,” Murdoch said yesterday—which has pretty much been his method of operation in the media business. By force of will and clarity of position, he defines the world.

What’s more, he believes this new world, like the older one in which he succeeded, is a tabloid world: “When we have a celebrity scoop, the number of hits we get now are astronomical,” he said, unmindful that his scoop, on the Internet, is a second away from being everybody else’s scoop. “We'll be asserting our copyright at every point,” he added, like a man getting ready to go to war (say in Iraq or Vietnam).

My book about Murdoch is called The Man Who Owns the News because owning the world’s biggest news business is exactly what he set out to do, and because that is pretty much what he achieved. There is, simply, no one who produces more news than Rupert. Quantity is what he does. On this basis and with this approach, he is now losing his shirt. But he cannot conceive of the world in any other sense than one in which his news outlets are not the most emphatic and powerful and lucrative.

At this point, however, for him to continue to own the news, for the world to go on existing in large measure in Rupert Murdoch’s version of the news, you are going to have to pay him per click.

It isn’t likely that you will—but Rupert has pulled off upsets before. Though this one would be his most astounding.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.
  

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