When I saw the recent headlines about Rupert Murdoch wanting to buy the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, the first thing that came to mind was the old "Weekend Update" segment on "Saturday Night Live" called "Really!?! with Seth & Amy" -- the one where Seth Myers and Amy Poehler would serve up a heady mix of incredulousness and condescension.
I thought: Really, Rupert!?! Your empire is coming apart at the seams because of newspapers, so you want to buy more newspapers? Really!?! You're endlessly mired in a phone-hacking scandal -- the one that started at your British tabloid newspaper News of the World -- so you think you should spread Murdoch-style ethics to other papers? Really!?! You're worth a gazillion dollars and could afford to invest in anything (steam locomotives, whale-oil lamps...), but you're still banking on newspapers? Really!?!
The funny thing about Murdoch's rumored interest in buying the L.A. Times is that word of it first appeared in a Murdoch property, The Wall Street Journal; The Chicago Tribune, a sister paper of the Times, was tacked on in later stories by other outlets.
Thereafter, Murdoch's PR apparatus put out a statement insisting that "reports that News Corp. is in discussion with Tribune or the L.A. Times are wholly inaccurate." Which, given Murdoch's history of end-runs (e.g., his strong-arm purchase of The Wall Street Journal), ain't saying much.
Murdoch, of course, is a lifelong, unreconstructed press lord. News Corp. investors, naturally, hate that about Murdoch, which is why this summer the company announced plans to split in two. The bigger, more profitable entertainment group (20th Century Fox, Fox Broadcasting, etc.) will be divorced from the publishing division (the Journal, New York Post, The Times of London, etc.). Investors who generally hate on newspapers are delighted to see all the corporate dogs being put together in one sad, small kennel, but Murdoch sees it differently. "Our publishing businesses are greatly undervalued by the skeptics," he wrote in a June internal memo.
Is Murdoch really that much of an out-of -touch, inky nostalgist? Or does he know something about newspapers that the rest of us don't?
A little (or a lot) of both, I'd say.
But first, consider the very subtext of the acquisition rumors (which are coming from News Corp. sources). We are to think of Murdoch as an iconic press baron who still has the wherewithal to buy iconic newspapers, if he so desires. In being reminded of Murdoch's historic stature, we are, of course, to forget the sordid scandals at Murdoch's British papers.
But suppose there's substance to the rumors -- that Murdoch really does want to buy the Times and the Trib. What could he possibly see in them?
For one thing, he lives for the nitty-gritty details of the whole antique newspaper industry -- even delivery issues; just last Wednesday, for instance, he was personally responding to a reader who took to Twitter to complain that his subscriber copy of the WSJ failed to arrive twice this month. "If you don't hear from customer service in 24 hours tweet me again," Murdoch twatted. (It's worth noting that a week earlier Murdoch also revealed, via Twitter, that he was visiting Chicago -- the home, of course, of Tribune Co., owner of both the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune.)
But more to the point, Murdoch understands that newspapers, even as the industry continues to downsize, still matter hugely in the political realm. And if there's anything we've learned from the News phone-hacking scandal in the U.K., it's just how many British politicians were Murdoch pets thanks to the power of his network of papers there.
British pols who feared Murdoch for decades and who privately groveled at his feet suddenly got to publicly vilify him, thanks to Hackgate. But the toxic cloud from the scandal has so far failed to shadow Murdoch's U.S. operations, and besides, this is his home -- the Australian native has been a naturalized U.S. citizen since 1985 -- so why not try to double down on his bets here?
Profit is beside the point. Murdoch has been contentedly hemorrhaging money at his conservative New York Post since buying it (for a second time) in 1993; Gabelli & Co. analyst Brett Harriss told Bloomberg News this summer that he thinks the paper could be losing as much as $110 million a year. His Wall Street Journal, though, makes money, and he's somehow managed to align the already-conservative paper even more tightly with his political ops. (Media Matters, the watchdog organization that lives to needle Murdoch, recently pointed out that the Journal has published two dozen anti-Obama and/or pro-Romney op-ed pieces by advisers to the Romney campaign without disclosing their ties to Romney, which prompted protests from the editorial page editors of , yep, the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times, among other papers.) And, of course, he's also got Fox News.
But America's a big country, and all of Murdoch's journo-politico power here is centered in New York -- while Murdoch's corporate interests are spread all over the map (and particularly in L.A.). Given the opportunity to snatch up two prestige papers (on what will surely be the cheap) that would allow him to triangulate his power across the continent, well, why wouldn't he?
Besides, at 81, in his mind, he's young (his mother, Dame Elisabeth, is still kicking at age 103). What could be more fun for Rupert Murdoch to do over the next decade or two than try to re-create here what he had in the U.K.?
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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