OFF THE GRID

Once Again Into the Breach: Rupert Murdoch Dreams of a Digital Newspaper

Aug 16, 10 | 7:42 AM   byMichael Wolff
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First, the really big news in the LA Times story about Rupert Murdoch’s plan to start an all new national newspaper for the iPad and mobile devices: The picture shows that he’s not dyeing his hair anymore. The orange (or sometimes aubergine) is gone. One of the things Murdoch is said to have most disliked in my book about him is that I made fun of his terrible dye jobs. Now his hair is all white and cut short, just like…well, mine.

Then, a central point that should not be forgotten when Murdoch talks about newspapers and his vision for them in America: He’s never had a paper here that’s worked. Never. Not one. He may be the world’s most successful newspaper man, with a history of outsized reach and profits (though, now, fading) in Australia and the UK, but here, in the US newspaper business, he’s only ever been a dud.

His longest and most cherished effort, the New York Post, has, by some estimates, lost more money than any media enterprise ever—into the billions. It’s a vanity project on a grand and often petulant scale (I can do it if I want to, and nobody can stop me). But even his more grounded efforts, in Boston, Chicago, and Texas, have produced, at best, anemic results. He just didn’t connect. His tabloid didn’t work here—just too old-fashioned, working class, barroom. Now his up-market talents, as it were, are being tried at the Wall Street Journal, a paper that seems headed in the direction of the Post: a product divorced from financial reality, on target to absorb historic losses.

It should be noted, too (I have noted it many times before), that Murdoch, now pronouncing the iPad the savior of the news business, has never succeeded in any digital venture he’s managed. Never. Not once. From Delphi to iGuide to his son James’ dotcom investments to MySpace—all for naught. Perhaps his most relevant venture, with regard to his national digital newspaper dream, is his roll-out a few years ago of a Page Six-brand web business to compete with the gossip sites eating the space Page Six once controlled: total flop, closed weeks after it launched.

This new venture sounds like a rehash of the Page Six notion. It will, the LA Times reports, be run as something of an extension of the Post. Its chief will be Jesse Angelo, the No. 2 editor at the Post (there was a roman à clef written about him, called Tabloid Love, by Bridget Harrison, a former newsroom girlfriend). Jesse has deep connections to the Murdoch family—he’s one of Murdoch’s son James' closest friends (Jesse is James’ representative on the family trust)—but might be better described as the man who time forgot. He seems like an old city editor—which is what he is (he’s actually a Manhattan yuppie who went to Harvard, but he’s turned himself into a would-be Aussie preternaturally at home in the Brooklyn police shack and at Langan's, the sticky-table, funny-hat bar on West 47th Street favored by the Post’s gargoyle-like reporters). As a kind of adopted son in the Murdoch family, he was encouraged to learn a trade that might well have no usefulness outside of the Murdoch family. What’s more, he learned it in the Post newsroom, one of the most technological backward places in the world. This is the person Murdoch has tapped to create a newspaper that will appeal to young people.

And the last point: Why is Rupert Murdoch, the CEO and chairman of a more than $30 billion diversified media company, spending so much of his time worrying about a business—newspapers—that is of so little importance to his company’s future and bottom line?

Reasonable conclusion: He’s been pushed aside. The real life of the company heads forward, while his executives and members of his family have figured out a way—encourage him to save newspapers!—to leave the 79-year-old chairman behind.

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. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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