Whichever way you look at it, the domination of print newspapers as a daily reading ritual is coming to an end.
Only big spenders with super egos and nothing better to do with their money are keeping the daily prints alive. Another generation ahead will have forgotten entirely the weird and ancient habit of the daily newspaper chucked on the lawn by the local newsagent, who now makes more money from selling lottery tickets.
There was a time when the owners of newspapers were performing a valuable public service. They were usually people who understood journalism and its value to society.
Newspapers were so popular they attracted the interest of investors and gradually mergers and buyouts took place and publishing became an important national industry in which political power and massive wealth became major elements.
The collapse is the result of a stock market that has seen, within the current century, the value of newspaper shares slide to the point of looming extinction. The end of the media dinosaurs, replaced by a feast of far better alternatives and, hopefully, offering a new freedom of personal choices.
The gradual change was reinforced last week when the former head of News Corporation in Australia, Kim Williams, came under a vicious attack from the company. He had confirmed that New Corp’s financial structure was very shaky in his period there.
Williams, under instructions from Rupert Murdoch, was leading the company when it was running outrageous headlines and manufactured news articles clearly designed to ensure that Tony Abbott would be the next prime minister of Australia in the lead up to the 2013 September election. Despite this success, Williams was fired because of a tiff with Murdoch’s son Lachlan over a totally separate issue.
News Corp’s new management, which maintains the lowest profile in the company’s history, has claimed that the company’s financial position had improved since Williams left. Williams released a statement saying he had been the recipient of a 'festival of vengeance' from News Corp and accusations from the company that he had revealed confidential information about the shaky state of News Corp’s finances. He has denied this allegation.
The online news publication Crikey obtained internal company figures showing that News Corp was bleeding money. News Corp lawyers demanded the return of the documents and Crikey returned them. Leaked documents have been a regular feature of New Corp’s own financial reporting on other companies for many years.
The relationship between Kim Williams and News Corp seems likely to remain unpleasant for some time because Williams says he writing a book about his period within News Corp.
Where there were once dozens of independent newspapers around Australia, now there are only four left and cannot be seen as independent. The two biggest remaining are Fairfax and News Corp — and it was News Corp which swallowed the majority of what was left.
Bravado and bullshit are keeping Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspapers alive. There is no financial justification for their continued existence, apart for Rupert Murdoch’s idealistic concept of his own power — now rapidly declining, it seems.
There is a rationale for Fairfax.
Major shareholder Gina Rinehart needs to underpin her lucrative mining companies. Fairfax papers at least try to steer a reasonable pretence of fairness in reporting on the two major political parties. This is in contrast to the uniform shrieks of horror that appear in the Murdoch papers whatever the Labor Party proposes.
Newspapers do lie when it suits them and they have been doing so since their very beginning.
The founder of The Times of London in 1788 (originally, from 1785, The Daily Register) was John Walter, who made a lot of money by not reporting the most sensational story of the era. He received three hundred pounds a year for not reporting that King George III was clinically insane. The British Government paid him for silence until the king died, in 1820, locked inside his palace.
Under Murdoch, who bought the paper in 1981, The Times – formerly seen as the English paper of record –has lost all its famous prestige. It is now seen in Britain as the crude plaything of a coarse intruder from the antipodes.
Another British newspaper, The Guardian, whose investigative reporting first exposed Murdoch’s criminal invasions of telephone privacy, is still held in esteem and has accepted the internet as a friend to expand its reporting worldwide.
The American newspaper industry is undergoing its own acceptance of change. Three of the biggest newspaper operators in the U.S. – E.W. Scripps, the Tribune Company and Gannet – have all shut down or sold off at fire sale prices their own massive range of local newspapers across 50 states. All three have turned to television, buying up transmitters all over the nation.
The founder of the internet marketing company Amazon, Jeff Bezos, paid $250 million to buy one of America’s great newspapers, the Washington Post. He explained that he had confidence in the future of that newspaper for its “serious news”.
Only Rupert Murdoch seems stuck on newspapers — about 200 of them around the world. It was a way of building world recognition. For what purpose is a mystery. Was he expecting to rule the world? He claims that his papers bring in a quarter of the revenue of his whole empire, while the other three quarters come from movies and television.
His New York Post gives him political influence in New York State — the city where he lives, at the top of a massive tower. He has used the Post to win elections for various mayors who knew how to return favours. The Post is a serious money loser.
His Wall Street Journal – once a highly respectable business and financial source for big investors around the world – has been seen as the paper to challenge The New York Times, which has irritated Rupert by carrying prominent coverage of the hacking scandal in England and the collapse of his marriages. The Wall Street Journal is essentially a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, though it has a wide international readership.
The Sulzberger family has owned the Times since 1896 and its present head, Arthur Jnr, has firmly declared that the paper is not for sale. Arthur himself, however, has been caught secretly selling off a large slice of his family stock.
Murdoch could have picked up Time magazine, created by Henry Luce in 1923, as soon as it achieved a worldwide circulation. Murdoch’s bid for Time Warner, formerly Hollywood’s Warner Bros movie producer, would have given him the famous magazine as well as the opportunity to merge Warner with Murdoch’s own 21st Century Fox. But Time Warner told him they didn’t want his offer and didn’t want to talk to him.
Murdoch will be 85 years old next March. He is looking worn and frail — haunted by all the investigations that are silently continuing.
He seems to want his sons Lachlan and James to take over the company one day. Lachlan spent a couple of years running the Australian companies, but he was never comfortable. He had little interest in journalism and even less in politics.
His younger brother James made a fool of himself in London and had to be shifted out of England to avoid further entanglement in the hacking trials.
Rupert has made a few short visits to Australia recently and massive staff cuts have been quietly carried out by current executives, who keep their profiles low.
Both Fairfax and News Corp have carried out staff cuts that were unreported. Fairfax retrenched about 1,900 staff and News Corp paid out nearly 1,000. The Australian lost 54 staff, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph lost 167, Brisbane’s Courier Mail 295 and the Melbourne Herald Sun 241.
Most of the retrenchments were of journalists and photographers.
In Melbourne, only the Herald Sun maintains a reasonable profit, thanks to a combination of Australian Rules Football, some sordid local political and police scandals and the lifetime habits of a rapidly ageing readership. Last year the Herald Sun returned a meagre profit, about half of its earlier prime years.
Perhaps Murdoch and Rinehart can afford these failures.
Not many other business magnates would survive such losses if their power was slightly less.
You can follow Rodney E. Lever on Twitter @rodneyelever.
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