Right after Rupert Murdoch said he was planning to go free at the Wall Street Journal, one of its executives — a revenue officer probably quaking over his job — told Editor & Publisher:
“It is jumping the gun, people are jumping to conclusions here very quickly. We haven’t even closed the deal yet,” said Michael Rooney, senior vice president and chief revenue officer for the company’s consumer media group. “Mr. Murdoch would like to have the largest, most robust site in business. Free is a way to look at that. But there is a lot of detail behind that. You have to work that out. You don’t just flip the switch.”
Doesn’t sound like a can-do attitude to me. And when Murdoch takes over, that’s what he’ll expect, Mr. Rooney. It’s a seat-of-the-pants, quick-decision, make-it-happen company in my experience.
Let me tell you a story about my time at News Corp. When I arrived there, I brought the idea of starting a Parents’ Guide to Children’s Entertainment to my then-boss and now friend, the editor of TV Guide at the time, Anthea Disney.
The first time I mentioned it in a larger meeting, Les Hinton, now Murdoch’s head guy in London and then his head guy in American magazines, said: ‘Interesting… but no.’
The second time it came up, he paused a bit longer but said, ‘No.’
The third time it came up, he said, ‘That magazine of yours… Do it.’
I said, ‘OK, I’ll get you a business plan.’
‘No,’ Les said, ‘do it.’
‘Oh,’ I said, figuring I’d just skipped about 15 steps, 10 reports, 200 meetings, and six years in the process I had endured launching Entertainment Weekly at task-force-ruled Time Inc. ‘You want me to get a prototype done.’
‘No,’ Les said, now impatient, ‘just launch it.’
You could always count on quick decisions at News Corp. When he said ‘do it,’ he meant do it! That was the good side of Australian-rules management. The bad side was that an American executive, long since gone, also tried to make quick decisions and he insisted on a rate base (circulation) for the first issue of 1 million with no marketing whatsoever — a practical impossibility. To make up for that, they printed it TV-Guide-size and put it at checkouts in some TV Guide racks. Except after two weeks, TV Guide’s circ department feared my magazine hurting their sales — a not unreasonable idea — and they pulled my magazine. It had sold, as I recall, more than a half million copies — which for any magazine sold under such circumstances would have been a hit. They did put out a second issue of the magazine (large-size this time) but it was killed finally when the then ad director complained about her TV Guide sales force wasting their time on my $8k pages when they should be selling her $80k pages — also not unreasonable, but I couldn’t get a separate sales force and so the magazine died. (Though it is still a pretty damned good idea, I’d say).
So, Mr. Rooney, I’d be prepared for an atmosphere of decision making. If you don’t make a decision, you can bet someone else will beat you to it. Rather than saying, ‘You don’t just flip the switch, you know,’ I’d suggest offering ideas about how you could flip it. You’re not in Kansas anymore.