Could the Murdochs be the saviours of journalism?

July 22, 2011

By Kathleen Brooks. The opinions expressed are her own.

When newspaper moguls are grabbing the headlines something has gone spectacularly wrong, but are we forgetting what the Murdochs have done to preserve print journalism?

Anyone who has followed the unfolding story over the News of the World phone hacking saga will be rightly outraged that a newspaper – a journalist – could think it was perfectly acceptable to get a story from hacking into someone’s voice mail.

Like most people, I could live with celebrities getting their phones hacked, although I don’t agree with it, but when it was uncovered that a murdered school girl was also targeted I wondered what had happened to a profession to which I have such profound respect.

We can only hope that these methods have died with the now defunct News of the World and tabloid journalists will stop lazily hacking into emails and revert to less ruthless, more compassionate ways to find stories in future. At this stage the debate should be focused on journalists’ standards and ethics and how tabloids can find the titillating stories that are their bread and butter without breaking the law.

Instead it seems obsessed with bringing down Rupert Murdoch and the business he has built up over 50 years. This is the most popular bandwagon in town right now, but it is exactly what advocates for print journalism should not support. The Murdochs’, for all of their faults, are necessary to keep the newspaper industry alive. The demise of print journalism is well known. In a world where more and more information is available on the internet for free, where a growing number of people stay away from buying inky sheets and turn to the internet for a quick fix of news a few times a day – the newspaper industry can’t compete.

There have been some high profile cases of papers on life support in recent years. Even the New York Times, which first broke the phone hacking story, has had to go to desperate lengths to secure its future and its building in Midtown Manhattan.  Over here, the Times saw its circulation drop to below 500,000 last year, the first time that had happened for 14 years.

If News Corp was headed by anyone other than Rupert Murdoch you could imagine they would give it the chop in favour of more lucrative businesses in other media and regions. However, Murdoch senior has an intense pride in journalism. He passionately told the Commons Select Committee in Westminster about his history in print and the pride he had for his journalist father.

Newspapers are their own worst enemies at times. No one seems to be willing to take the lead and push through a new model for a modern age. But Murdoch has the resources to try things. Hence The Daily, his iPad specific paper that launched earlier this year. It has all the benefits of Apple: great pictures and video, as well as proving to be good value for money at $0.14 a day. But more importantly it has a strong and sustainable business model: Apple sold 15 million iPads in nine months last year, which means there is the potential for many millions of subscribers. It is also employing at least 100 journalists who may otherwise find it hard to get work.

Rupert Murdoch also understands that good journalism can’t be given away. When he acquired Dow Jones one of the first things that he did was put the Wall Street Journal behind a pay wall. People should pay for good journalism, was his mantra. It has been an overriding success. As of May, the Wall Street Journal was the most widely read paper in the U.S.. The New York Times came in third, with less than half the readers of the Journal.

Murdoch has yet to see the same success at The Times. But what people don’t realise is that other parts of Murdoch’s media empire keep his less successful print operations alive. Newspapers shouldn’t have the pressure to keep turning a profit; they have more important things to do. The Murdochs’ realise this. If News Corp is forced to break itself up or eventually buckles under this pressure then journalism will suffer. There won’t be many buyers waiting in the wings willing to subsidise a loss-making Times or Sunday Times.

We need newspapers. Yes, journalism can go spectacularly wrong, but it can go so right. Think of the MPs’ expenses scandal back in 2009. The phone hacking scandal needs to come to a conclusion, the Murdoch empire needs to pay, but if too high a price is extracted all of journalism will suffer.

Image — BSkyB Chairman James Murdoch (L) and his father, News Corp Chief Executive and Chairman Rupert Murdoch, appear in images made from television as they are questioned by parliamentary committee on phone hacking at Portcullis House in London July 19, 2011. REUTERS/Parbul TV via Reuters TV

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