The last mogul moments

Economist Murdoch coverRupert Murdoch is the last of a breed, a breed he and his company will be responsible for killing in an act of mogulcide.

The Economist agrees that he is the last mogul and says it is time for him to go. It also says that media need a strong News Corp. There we certainly disagree. Autos don’t need a strong GM. What media needs — and is getting — is disruption of its overly strong institutions. The death of the mogul in news is something to celebrate, and eulogize.

I’ve worked for many moguls: latter-day Hearsts (San Francisco Examiner); Robert Maxwell (New York Daily News); Murdoch (TV Guide and Delphi Internet); and the Newhouses (though I’ll argue they’re not very mogully because they don’t fit most of these criteria). What makes a media mogul?
1. He controls his (sorry, but there are no hers here) company.
2. His company controls much of a market.
3. He hungers for influence in politics and society.
4. He lusts for attention.
5. He is narcissistic but also un-self-aware; the combination inspires endless anecdotes about his ego.

Murdoch, Maxwell, and the Hearsts, when they still managed, fit those criteria. This is not to say that nonmoguls are necessarily better. At the vaunted Time Inc., for example, an insidious culture of task forces, insider politics, and indecision led to more corporate interference than I have seen at any company I’ve worked in (I’ll tell those stories another day). And there’s an advantage to moguls: You know who’s in charge; you get decisions.

No matter. They are soon to be extinct, for many reasons. Media institutions’ lock on content creation and distribution is over. The risk and cost of starting new, large-scale media properties is too great. Control of scarcity in closed markets led to moguls’ and conglomerates’ consolidation; now, in an abundant economy, what used to be their assets are now their liabilities. When consolidation does occur, it’ll be through private equity and hedge funds, not wealthy individuals. And, as we are seeing today, genes dilute.

Who could our post-modern news moguls be? Nick Denton? Perhaps, on a smaller scale, but he can’t control his market. Arianna Huffington? Only in the desire for influence. Michael Arrington? Like Huffington, his boss, he no longer controls his company. Facebook, Google, Twitter, et al aren’t media companies; they’re platforms (which is what media companies should be, but aren’t). No Rupert is our dodo.

Some lament their passing. Ryan Chittum admirably assembles the mourners. The Wall Street Journal’s apologia will be a classic of the form. There’s this absurd defense of moguls in the [cough] Washington Times, arguing that without them, who’ll pay newspapers’ bills? Conrad Black, inmate, argued that prosecuting Murdoch for foreign crimes in the U.S. would be “the end of the rule of law in the United States” and be tantamount to homicide.

I say there are many reasons to dance on the moguls’ grave. First is the corruption exposed in London, the institutional incest between news media and government, and the pernicious, unfair, and unbalanced influence on public policy. Next is the breaking up of the mogul’s monopoly control of the means of distribution, now that we all have a Gutenberg press in our pockets. We may at last recapture our public sphere.

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Ah, but how can we attend the moguls’ wake without hoisting a glass and telling a tale or two? Here are a few of mine…

At the San Francisco Examiner (and Chronicle), I was Sunday news editor, producing the Ex’s share of a widely vilified weekend paper. It was our burden to run weekly editorial by William Randolph Hearst, Jr. We were to refer to him at WHR. Part of my job was to edit his tomes. Problem was, they made no fucking sense. I didn’t know it, but I was witnessing the twilight of the family’s control. WRH was tolerated but soon professional managers ran the company for the family.

When I walked out of Entertainment Weekly in a huff and went to the New York Daily News as Sunday editor, a wag on the city desk said, “man, you just jumped from the frying to the microwave.” How right he was. We suffered through a brutal strike and a change of ownership to Robert Maxwell. It may not speak well for my character that he liked me.

Oh, do I have stories about him. I’ll share this: One day, Maxwell called me and my boss, Jim Willse, into his suite (the “Married to the Mob Suite,” Willse called it) at the Waldorf Astoria. Too bad this blog doesn’t have a soundtrack, so you’ll have to read his lines in your head with an overlarge, acquired British accent. “JAH-VIS,” Maxwell bellowed, “We must take charge of the color GREEN! I tell you, GREEN is sweeping Europe.” The thing about moguls, is that they’re often right; that’s how they got to be moguls. He decreed that I was in charge of marketing — which would have come as a big surprise to the head of marketing — so he could order me to paint all the Daily News trucks and newsboxes green. I nodded. This is how one is ensnared into moguls’ plots. Then I called the head of circulation and gave him the proprietor’s (that’s what Maxwell wanted us to call him) order. “He’s nuts,” the circ boss said. “The paint would be worth more than the trucks!” Your problem, I said, delegating my briefly held authority. I’ll give it to them: They solved the problem by painting only the newsboxes and trucks on the route between the Daily News Building and the Waldorf green. Maxwell was satisfied, soon having much bigger problems to worry about (not enough green on his ledgers). For years afterwards, those boxes stood north of 42nd as a memorial to the mogul.

When Maxwell went overboard, in more ways than one, I escaped to TV Guide, then owned by Murdoch, and became TV critic. The closest thing I saw to editorial interference from the mogul was when the Fox sitcom Moesha premiered. My editor told me that Rupert liked it — which itself is amusing (one imagines the mighty man sitting on his chesterfield guffawing at the antics of an African-American teenager). The boss said I shouldn’t let that affect my opinion, only that I should argue my opinion well if I didn’t like it. That’s the same advice I got as a critic in general when I became one.

Otherwise, I was left alone. When Murdoch bought Dow Jones, I told this anecdote to journalists to say that I’d seen far less interference from Murdoch than I saw from executives at Time Inc. I use this anecdote today to demonstrate that I have not been a reflexive Murdoch basher; I am more recently appalled.

There we see Murdoch’s advantage and disadvantage: He let his trusted managers do as they pleased …. but they tried to please him. That’s the argument in favor of his direct culpability in the hacking scandal: He fostered a seat-of-the-pants culture where people didn’t have to be told to go too far, where — as he demonstrated before Parliament — the Murdochs themselves do not take responsibility.

But that’s over now. Murdoch has lost the influence his newspapers gave him. He and may lose control of his company. His heirs will not take it over. The mogul is extinct. The kind of big media institution he built will follow him. Lovely chaos will follow. It’s called democracy.