How Murdoch Made Times of London His

Vowed Not to Meddle, Then Shook Up Staff and Changed Editorial

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In 1981, more than 200 years after its first edition was published, Rupert Murdoch added The Times of London to his international news empire. In order to buy The Wall Street Journal, he needed to woo the Bancroft family. To buy The Times, he needed to get the permission of members of Parliament and to secure an agreement with print unions.

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The Times had a famous ad slogan in the 1960s: "Top people take The Times." That neatly summed up the view of The Times as being the newspaper of the establishment while almost suggesting it was so elitist it didn't even want to woo new readers. That is not a mistake that Mr. Murdoch has made. He has spent millions drawing eyeballs, using tactics such as a price-cutting war and changing the editorial style to become more mainstream. On the business side, he focused on cutting production costs and increasing advertising.

Although broadly supportive of Tony Blair's Labour government, The Times is far harder to pigeonhole politically than its rivals. The market-leading Daily Telegraph is seen as being pro- conservative, The Guardian is regarded as the paper of the liberal left and The Independent has declared itself a "viewspaper, not a newspaper," campaigning against the war in Iraq and on green issues. The irony is that although Murdoch polarizes opinion, The Times under his ownership moved from being the voice of the establishment to occupying the center ground.

Slow, steady change
Much like his recent agreement with the Bancroft family, Mr. Murdoch promised not to interfere editorially at The Times and agreed to allow an outside board to choose editors. Sunday Times Editor Harry Evans was the first new editor under Mr. Murdoch. More in-depth news stories appeared, as did a few layout changes. Within a year, Mr. Murdoch requested Mr. Evans step down after a public battle of opinions. The tactics to boost The Times' audience continued through the five editors that served the paper in the first 10 years of Mr. Murdoch's ownership.

But Mr. Murdoch completely changed the paper in 2004, eliminating the broadsheet format and publishing only a tabloid-size paper to appeal to younger readers. The paper increased its year-on-year circulation for 22 consecutive months.

The Times is still not profitable, however -- in 2005 The Times and The Sunday Times lost $95 million (this despite the Sunday Times being hugely profitable) but Mr. Murdoch continues to bankroll the publication and has invested heavily in the newspaper's online presence. The Guardian reported last week that in the past 10 years, the proportion of The Times' revenue from single-copy sales rose to 30% from 27% 10 years ago. Print advertising fell to 56% from 72% over the same period, and digital now accounts for 6% of total revenue.

Mr. Murdoch's style as a newspaper owner, however, is not as jarring in the U.K. as some in the U.S. seem to think it is. The British press has a tradition of being owned by mavericks, megalomaniacs and madmen who want the papers they own to express political views.

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Contributing: Emma Hall, Kimberly D. Williams and Jon Slattery, former deputy editor of the British journalists' weekly magazine Press Gazette.
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