My dinner with Rupert

The note slipped under my hotel room door read: “You have been invited to join Rupert Murdoch at his table tonight.”

What a hoot, huh? I was in Monterey this weekend moderating a panel for a worldwide meeting of Murdoch’s newspaper and online execs, plus folks from Fox News and Sky News, about 60 in all. As one of Murdoch’s own papers reported, this confab was called for the various divisions to get together to share best practices and plans in digital strategy. There’s nothing earth-shattering in that; any company should be doing this and I suspect what I heard at this gathering would be much like what I’d hear at other such meetings. But as one other outside attendee — a journalist who, oddly, wanted to keep his presence on the QT — said to me: If this were a meeting in his own company, he’d growl about having to go. But going to somebody else’s meeting is kinda fun: corporate voyeurism without the fear of saying something wrong and getting fired. Of course, the meeting was essentially off the record; I wouldn’t share any business details just because I was a guest, any more than I’d share a consulting client’s private plans. So if it was just a company meeting and I’m revealing no secrets, why blog about it at all? Because various of you, in comments and emails, wanted me to. It’s Murdoch, after all. Moguls are fascinating. And he’s all the more fascinating having just bid to buy Dow Jones. So here are a very few atmospherics and observations from my weekend with Rupert.

Murdoch began the meeting exhorting his executives to make a huge leap in a completely different world. I do believe he means it. As in any media company today, it’s not clear how much the rest of the culture yet means it. That’s why companies hold meetings like this, to make them understand that, indeed, the boss really does mean it.

My role was to wrangle Gawker’s Nick Denton and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in a panel that was meant to show these guys how we renegades look at the new world. Claiming moderator’s prerogative, I began with my commandments for the new world — basically, a four-minute distillation of all my blatherings about the strategic imperatives for newspapers in this blog and my Guardian column (lucky them, they didn’t have to read any of it). As I talked about the ability to grow through collaboration and links and the need to find new efficiency and to turn the newsroom inside out, I saw scattered head-nodding and brow-furrowing in equal proportion around the room. Murdoch himself was nodding a lot. As I ended my uncharacteristically brief spiel, he held his hands out to applaud, cocked and ready. Then he saw that no one else was going to do likewise, so he dropped them. I took that as an ovation.

Denton and I got into a few theatrical squabbles — show, mainly — over how new this new stuff really is; I’ll spare you. Zuckerberg impressed the room with his thoughtful focus, just as he did in a similar roomful of media executives at Davos. He’s clear and direct and that’s refreshing. I heard from many of the execs how impressed they were with him. Said one: ‘I told him that I think he’s one of the few who really understands just what he did.’ But Denton and I were also standing nearby as a newspaper editor asked Mark what Facebook is and then asked him whether anybody had tried to buy him. Denton practically spewed a spit take. Naw, nobody‘s interested.

At that dinner that night, I might as well have been the waiter. Murdoch sat next to Zuckerberg and he was clearly enchanted; they stayed head-to-head all through the meal. Mark left to get back up north and in a flash, MySpace founder and now Murdochian Chris DeWolfe came dashing over, as if he were jealous of the attention Dad had given that other kid. Murdoch then moved down the table and I asked, only half-joking, whether he’d just bought Facebook, too. No, in Zuckerberg, I think Murdoch sees a fellow mogul in the making.

The next morning at breakfast, one of the execs leaned over to me and pointed to Murdoch at a table across the room. ‘I’d love to have a picture of that,’ he said as Murdoch pored over the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. Oh, I, too, was tempted: that craggly brow peeking out over that staid masthead might have been the media picture of the year. But I resisted. If I didn’t, I’d never get invited back to dinner.

While we were there, newspapers — piled up outside the meeting room door each morning — were filled with stories about Murdoch and the Journal, each trying to guess what he’d do with Dow Jones and how the companies would combine. Which leads me to the only real point of this post: The News Corp. culture. It doesn’t seem to have changed much since I was there, at TV Guide, in the mid-90s. One senses the Australian roots. They’re direct, friendly, unpretentious. I don’t sense the same foreboding of death by dagger or high-heel I’ve seen at the other media companies where I’ve worked: the torture by task force of Time Warner, the palace intrigues of Conde Nast, the woodshed sternness of Tribune. The good and the bad of News Corp., I’ve long said, is that they fly by the seat of their pants: They make decisions quickly and decisively and some are brilliant and some are not but at least you can get a decision and move on. Now, of course, you can disagree with those decisions. But I would reassure the people at Dow Jones that this is not the News Corp. of fable. Murdoch is not an ogre. He’s a gracious and charming mogul. And the reason his people like working there is that he leaves them to operate more independently than I’ve seen in other companies — so long as they succeed, of course. Lots of them become lifers.

So I’m in league with Andrew Ross Sorkin in The Times today as he tries to allay the fears of DJ employees about their potential new boss. Is’s a rather remarkable endorsement of Murdoch’s bid:

With some hesitation, given Dow Jones’s storied place in American journalism, let me explore a contrarian view: Mr. Murdoch may be the perfect publisher of The Wall Street Journal. . . .

But an uncomfortable truth remains. The current state of financial affairs — caused by the continuing withering of print advertising revenues, shifting reader demographics and the seismic upheaval of the Internet — has made it extremely hard to continue “maintaining the quality” of The Journal (despite its clutch of Pulitzers) because sources of fresh investment funds are drying up. Dow Jones’s cash reserves have been further strained by the hefty dividends the Bancrofts have pushed for over the years. (Big dividends are in vogue in some newspaper quarters; The New York Times Company, for example, recently raised its dividend.)

So along comes Mr. Murdoch, who says he plans to invest more money in Dow Jones than anyone else imaginable. . . .

As they confront their continuing financial challenges, the Bancrofts can sit around and pray that a deep-pocketed white knight emerges — Warren E. Buffett, Bill Gates or The Washington Post are said by insiders to be favored choices — but it’s hard to think that even if such potential suitors did buy it they would seriously invest in the business the way Mr. Murdoch claims he would. It could result in just another holding pattern. . . .

If the family cares about preserving the Dow Jones legacy and seeing the company continue to flourish, it’s time to be financially creative. Rupert Murdoch is knocking on their door.

Yes, that’s what this meeting and the last week were all about: investing in the digital future of journalism. Someone has to do it.

: LATER: Media Bistro FishBowl went about 10 miles too far with this headline. I thought I couldn’t have been clearer that I was joking with my question.