Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Mr. Fox buys his henhouse

Mr. Fox buys his henhouse
By Alan Mutter
I was one of the 60 journalists who quit after Rupert Murdoch bought the Chicago Sun-Times in 1984, turning the paper into something that, as Mike Royko put it, a decent fish wouldn't want to be wrapped in.

So, I understand the fear and loathing that the employees of the Wall Street Journal feel at the prospect of News Corp. owning Dow Jones. But they may be surprised to hear me say that I think Murdoch will act decisively to protect the integrity and quality of the assets he is buying for $5 billion.

Although Murdoch's henchmen made a hasty hash of the Sun-Times with page-one screamers like "Men Can Have Babies, Too," you have to believe that someone willing to shell out five big ones for a trophy like DJ will be far more sensitive and thoughtful than to send in the clowns who pillaged the Sun-Times 23 years ago.

As Murdoch and his team soon learned, the radical remake of the Sun-Times was an embarrassingly poor business decision, proving to be as repugnant to readers and advertisers as it was to the newspaper's staff. Murdoch extricated himself from the situation a few years later, when he sold the paper and plowed the profits, and then some, into the television stations that today are part of the Fox Network.

After suffering through a series of idiosyncratic - and worse - owners, the Sun-Times, happily, has been rehabilitated by the most enlightened management it has seen in two decades. (Disclosure: I am a consultant to the company.)

Notwithstanding the long-ago fiasco at the Sun-Times, Rupert Murdoch didn't build one of the world's largest media companies by habitually making bad decisions.

Quite to the contrary, he typically has a unique business plan for every property in his vast and varied portfolio, shrewdly targeting each to a well-defined audience and advertising niche. That's why the Times of London is staid and stately - and American Idol is not.

"Under Murdoch's ownership, the [London] Times has expanded its staff," reports the Washington Post. "The paper now has about 495 journalists, including the online unit, and 20 foreign bureaus, a number that has doubled in recent years." Impressively, its circulation, which had been stagnant at about 200,000 for decades, now tops 670,000 - a gain unmatched by any American newspaper.

Although the Fox News Channel is a notorious pulpit for neo-con bullies and the New York Post teems with tales of Paris Hilton and Pervy Pete, each exploits large and lucrative market segments that were left wide open by the conventional, just-the-facts-ma'am media. Proofs of their success are readily apparent. The ratings of Fox News are twice as high as those of CNN and the Post's circulation in the six months ended on March 30 gained 7.6% while the industry average fell 2%.

It doesn't follow, however, that Murdoch's skill at turning dross into gold means he will turn the Dow Jones properties into political bludgeons or scandal sheets.

Murdoch is paying a handsome premium to acquire the company to extend its valuable brands around the globe through the print, television and Internet assets he already controls (and intends to buy or build). In so doing, Murdoch would gain access to a hefty share of the premium advertising revenues associated with the media products that serve the most sophisticated and affluent people in the world.

As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, Murdoch historically hasn't been squeamish about pushing his political and commercial agendas with the senior managers who run his media companies. But I think he will be more circumspect than ever at the DJ properties, because the whole world will be watching - and eagerly documenting any missteps in competing publications and the blogosphere.

At the end of the day, the power of the marketplace will keep Murdoch honest.

The business and financial reporting in the Journal, Barron's and the other DJ brands are rightfully respected as being thorough, dispassionate and insightful (notwithstanding a few wobbles in reporting on the News Corp. overture).

Eroding the credibility of the DJ properties would insult the intelligence of the readers and viewers that News Corp. covets, devaluing the franchises and perverting the premise of this very expensive transaction.

That would be dumb. And Rupert Murdoch isn't dumb.

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