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Business Unusual

Rupert Murdoch's multinational media empire at 90

10 March 2021 7:15 PM

How one of the most powerful media owners in the last century built his company
Rupert Murdoch - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009

The Executive Chairman of News Corp turns 90 in March and is arguably one of the most influential media owners of the last century.

At its peak his companies numbered as many as 800 entities in 50 countries. He has been regarded as the person to help get Britain to support Brexit and for Americans to elect Donald Trump and most recently to get Google and Facebook to pay for news content by his titles.

From a single newspaper in Adelaide owned by his father to a money making machine with huge political influence Rupert Murdoch has made the most of his years.

He has many justified critics and will leave a complicated legacy, but there is no doubt that he has had an exceptional impact on global media. Understanding what and how he built his empire is vital if only to ensure we don’t allow anyone else to replicate his methods.

There are three major sections to his efforts to build his empire

Taking over Australia

He returned from Oxford to take over his father's newspaper business in Adelaide at age 22, after settling taxes he had one newspaper in Adelaide. It may have ended there building and looking after a regional paper, but two central themes emerged right from the beginning: acquire new titles and grow the audience typically using tabloids as the way to do that.

In modern terms it is the playbook of social media companies to look for scale and that means going for clickbait.

Murdoch understood that in the 50s already.

His philosophy, economics and politics studies are the perfect mix to build a media company in the same way Steve Jobs understood technology and design as the way to put a dent in the universe.

One element that may sound surprising was that Murdoch was a socialist, that would change in later years but for much of his early years he was very left leaning.

The most ambitious thing he could do while in Australia was to consider building a national daily newspaper. The Australian was founded in the early 60s and while focussed on Canberra and Sydney was distributed nationally.

Consider the logistics of that statement, producing a newspaper and distributing a print copy to a country of just over 11 million spread across a continent in 1964!

Mark Zuckerburg’s ambition to connect the world does not seem quite as impressive when you have to manage getting a piece over paper across a continent on a daily basis.

He has married four times and has six children, while most has played a role in the company; it was the three children from his second marriage that have been the most involved and are likely to be part of the team that will take over the empire.

If you have not watched the series Succession, you will get a pretty good view of what family life must be like for a family with vaulting ambition and media and influence baked into their DNA.

As young children they did not look at the cartoons, they had their father explain the paper format, design and editorial decisions.

After growing a significant stake in the Australian media industry and using it to both enhance his business opportunities by carefully creating deals with politicians to help or simply not hinder their political ambitions, Murdoch was ready to look to the UK.

Moving the the UK

His start in the UK was to buy the tabloid News of the World in 1968 a paper that for all its success nearly saw his entire company collapse in 2011 when the 168 year old newspaper was shut for its part in a phone hacking scandal and saw him describe it as "the most humble day of my life".

But long before that date he had acquired such titles as the Sun and the Times of London.

For the Times of London he chose to upgrade the printing works and move the presses from their traditional home in Fleet street. It set up a battle with the powerful print unions. He used his business knowledge to see the future was for more automated printing but it was his political connections and specifically a relationship with Margaret Thatcher that saw him go one to win that battle.

For the Sun he introduced the page three topless model and the emphasis on over the top headlines on stories that were sure to get people stirred up at their local pub.

He understood an audience that would not only buy his papers daily but that they would follow the political views that would most benefit his group even if it was not the best thing for the political system or the country.

The media assets grew from newspapers to TV with Sky News being founded even if initially not a major profit making operation.

Coming to America

Murdoch’s media takeover was complete after he moved to America and began acquiring news titles there.

One of the titles he went after was the New York Post adding it to his portfolio in 1976. It followed a similar format to the Sun with big catchy and salacious headlines. One of the best arguably is Headless body found in topless bar. A line that was turned into a play.

Book publishing was added too, but so too was the purchase of a movie studio 20th Century Fox.

That eventually led to the founding of Fox news in 1997 to cater for a massive aging middle class traditional media consumer that filled rural America. It was hugely successful both for the size of its audience and the profits it generated.

Further acquisitions for assets like the Wall Street Journal added to his love for newspapers but he knew the future was TV and new media.

He has made a good many mistakes with purchases but one of the largest was buying the super popular MySpace for $580 million in 2005 not realising that a young Harvard student had built a service called The Facebook the year before. MySpace was sold for $35 million in 2011 after all doubt was removed that Facebook had won.

A bet that did pay off was his willingness to back Donald Trump in 2016 seeing his Fox Network benefit from his Presidency, the following year he sold the Fox movie business to Disney for over $70 billion dollars.

This is where I would suggest you pick up the story with the makers of succession as the rivalry and fall out with sons set up the state of play now with his son James at odds with the willingness of his media empire to challenge global warming and stories around the pandemic.

In assisting the UK Brexit and the US elect a controversial president he has demonstrated how traditional media still has massive influence and while we must acknowledge how successfully he built his business, it is also a serious warning to limit others to try to replicate his methods. The risk for significant harm to democracy, journalism and society in the pursuit of business success are not worth it.

Rupert Murdoch at 90 is someone that regardless of your view of him has had an incredible impact on the media landscape globally.




10 March 2021 7:15 PM

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