Rupert Murdoch's Newspaper Disease

Rupert Murdoch is fundamentally a newspaper man. That's how he built News Corp. into a world-strangling media conglomerate. But will his stubborn soft spot for papers be the thing that brings the company down?

Speculation during the last couple of weeks has been that Murdoch's #2 man at News Corp, Peter Chernin, could be leaving the company soon. That didn't seem to be based on anything solid, and besides, a management shuffle won't solve the fundamental problem that Murdoch's fondness for papers is hurting News Corp's profitability above and beyond what the economy at large is doing.

Murdoch's $5 billion payment for the Wall Street Journal was obviously far too rich. The New York Post has always been a money-loser. And on a more basic level, every newspaper in a company's portfolio these days is likely to be considered, at best, a time bomb by investors. Nobody thinks any newspaper anywhere is on the financial upswing; consequently, even a company stocked with some of the most influential papers in the world, like News Corp, pays a price for owning them. Murdoch adopts the Last Man Standing defense:

"I have great faith that if we continue the way we are going, we may even get lucky and not have so much competition at the end of it all," Mr. Murdoch said in a recent conference call with Wall Street analysts. "We are in good shape on the newspapers."

This idea has been espoused by various print titles recently—the New York Times and Time magazine, for example—asserting that the strength of their brands will carry them through the hard times, scathed but not dead, while weaker competitors fall away.

The problem with this: it's not an actual plan. It's just optimism. It's the media equivalent of WW1 trench fighting, betting that you'll finally break your enemy's lines because you have a greater number of soldiers to send to their deaths in front of the machine guns.

The result of this strategy is that everyone ends up crippled, and most end up dead. News Corp and Murdoch—and his competitors, for that matter—need to think smarter. [NYT]