June 3, 2013
Michael Wolff: Murdoch Tries For New Legacy
From USA Today — Casting it as an epochal comeback, an opportunity to start afresh, scale new heights and, not incidentally, rescue his reputation, 82-year-old Rupert Murdoch is inaugurating a new version of his old company, News Corp.
This is mystifying to many people. In the minds of his investors and the business world, this new company, split from the old, is a throwaway. The real company that he built over 60 years, which was called News Corp. but which will now be called 21st Century Fox, is his legacy and triumph.
Murdoch, apparently, doesn't see it this way. All of his inaugural comments about the new News Corp., which will officially come into being at the end of this month, centered on its rehabilitative possibilities, on the "spectacular mistakes" of the past, and now "the chance to do it all over again."
This new company is the once and future News Corp. that began with the legacy from his father — a single newspaper in Adelaide, Australia — and that the younger Murdoch spread across Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. and much of the world. Pay no attention to the almost $80 billion market-cap company, including Fox News, Fox Studios and Fox Networks, that is being left behind — and which his family will still control.
This runt company, he is taking pains to make clear, is his real legacy. He even unveiled a new logo, that, in almost occult fashion, is said to combine his handwriting and his father's.
Murdoch is hard to explain — and most people around him don't try.
For many years, it has made little sense to anyone in his business universe why he'd want to hold onto newspapers beset by scandal and losses when he controls one of the world's most dominant media businesses. But if the old man wanted newspapers, so be it.
If now he is casting his lot and reputation with a company dedicated to the losing newspaper business, so be it, too.
Murdoch, in fact, remains CEO of the successful company and only chairman of the new company — but everybody understands that the opposite is the reality. Murdoch, unneeded, is largely leaving the Fox properties, managed now by one of the top teams in media.
Instead, he will be devoting the bulk of his time to the new News Corp. where he's installed one of his editors as a figurehead CEO — and, hence, where Murdoch himself is truly needed.
This may be the most unbusinesslike struggle in business today. It's Murdoch against all sense, logic, numbers and opportunity. It's Murdoch in a fight for his own mystical legacy.
Not long ago, he thought he had won that fight. Murdoch's career capstone and triumph was supposed to have been his acquisition of The Wall Street Journal in 2008.
But then came the financial crisis, dragging newspapers down with it. His $5.6 billion purchase of the Journal, almost instantly worth just a fraction of that, made him seem like a fool even in his own company.
Then came the phone-hacking scandal, the nadir of his professional career. His reporters in London were found to have broken into the voice mail of thousands of celebrities, politicians and crime victims and their families. Murdoch, once the most powerful man in London, was nearly run out of town and, as well, forced to close News of the World, one of his most profitable titles.
As a result, he lost the fight he thought he could never lose: His company decided to shed its newspapers — and, in a sense, by implication, him with them.
What's more, his children — his other abiding preoccupation and basis of his legacy — bitterly resentful of their sudden tumble in stature, turned on each other and on him.
So this is where he finds himself at 82: He has to run a new company made up of almost entirely broken businesses. He has to make deep cuts in the newsrooms he loves, dispensing with many longtime loyalists. He has to do this in a world that has changed more than he can know. (The first picture of his new executive team was a line-up of bewildered-looking older men.)
Oh, and his children, who are his main shareholders and, as well, his reason for doing all this, hate him — not least of all because he insists on doing all this himself and not turning over the company to them.
Murdoch, gruff, cold, unable to talk in any personal sense, has seemed like the most steely and hard-hearted of businessmen — that's the Murdoch myth. In fact, he has always been a besieged king, balancing a precarious empire, fighting each battle as it came, seeing his wins and losses as a wholly personal reflection of his strength and character. The hard man is all emotion.
As part of the legacy he thought he had achieved with his purchase of The Wall Street Journal, Murdoch spoke to me at length in 2007 and 2008 for a book I was writing about him.
In fact, he was not very good at explaining himself — and not very happy with my portrait. His is never going to be a legacy created by reflection and self-mythmaking.
All he really can do, his only way to express himself and to make sense of himself, is fight another battle.
Welcome to the new News Corp.