Every couple of years, Rupert Murdoch remembers what he really wants from life. He sets aside whatever international conquest currently sits on his to-do list, and he reinflicts himself upon New York City by purchasing, repurchasing, or reinvesting in a New York media property.
All Murdoch wants is for the people of Manhattan to pay homage to him, and for the last 35 years they've basically refused his every advance.
The 79-year-old Murdoch's latest bid for the love of Gotham is his April 26 launch of the Greater New York news section of his Wall Street Journal. You may recall, the genocidal tyrant bought the Journal in 2007 in an earlier cry for attention from the people of New York. In a 2004 ploy to mark the city as his domain, he purchased Laurance Rockefeller's old Fifth Avenue penthouse for $44 million. In 1996, Murdoch temporarily gained citywide recognition by starting the New York-based Fox News Channel and waging a very public fight—which he won—to force Time Warner's New York cable system to carry it. In 1993, he purchased the New York Post for the second time, having first purchased it as his original New York media bauble in 1976. Shortly after buying the New York Post for the first time, he acquired the Village Voice and New York as digestifs but later discarded them. (He sold the Post in the late 1980s to satisfy the FCC rules against owning a daily and a TV station in one market. Yes, Murdoch had purchased a New York City station.)
But Murdoch's New York cravings can not be sated by marketplace victory. He can truly win only if others lose big, and the other New York institution that must lose big for Murdoch to be happy is the New York Times. The paper torments him on two levels: He regards it as a liberal propaganda sheet (it is not), and it serves as a daily rebuke of how horribly he's failed in his campaign to be crowned king of New York.
Sarah Ellison, author of the forthcoming War at the Wall Street Journal, heralds the Journal vs. Times match as "the last great newspaper war of the 20th century." But this sort of suicidal warfare makes sense only in Murdoch's kamikaze world, where he's content to lose an estimated $15 million to $30 million a year on the New York Post, as a 2005 BusinessWeek piece reported. Those losses are now thought to be $70 million a year, according to the New York Times. That sounds like a lot of money. But as BusinessWeek pointed out, those numbers are a budgetary rounding error inside a media conglomerate like Murdoch's News Corp.
The Journal lost about $87 million in fiscal year 2009, according to Ellison's book, so what's a few million more thrown away on this mission? According to Crain's New York Business, the Journal is spending $15 million on the Greater New York section to attract readers and advertisers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and his sales staff has given generous discounts off the Journal's rate card to draw prestigious advertisers from the Times that he thinks are ripe for the stealing. As Crain's reports, Saks Fifth Avenue spent $35,000 on advertising in the Journal last year and $6.5 million in the Times. Bloomingdale's dropped $217,000 on the Journal and $19 million on the Times. Both Saks and Bloomies are in the debut Greater New York.
But can the rotten old bastard 1) steal enough advertisers and 2) steal enough readers to cover his costs and prevail? Murdoch, who is similarly obsessed with London, has invested hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—there trying to vault his Times and Sunday Times over the city's other quality dailies, thereby smashing the effete pommie bastards who infuriate him almost as much as do the effete bastards who own, run, and read the New York Times. But that quest has failed miserably. According to a recent article in the Guardian, the Times and Sunday Times losses have widened from $77 million a year to $136 million. (Murdoch's raunchy tabloids, the Sun and News of the World,are still profitable, but their numbers are down.)
The bizarre thing about Murdoch's Journal play is that he's just as capable of making New York money as burning it: His Fox News should earn $700 million in operating profit this year, says the New York Times. What internal fury prevents Murdoch from deriving New York satisfaction from that triumph? Is it because it was too easy to knock off CNN? My couch isn't big enough to provide the analysis he deserves. As I think his biographer Michael Wolff pointed out, running newspapers seem to be the only thing that gives Murdoch satisfaction, and what better way to die than to fight newspaper wars on two fronts in your eighth decade?
Then again, perhaps I exaggerate Murdoch's sense of mortality. Perhaps he fights so wickedly because he believes he'll never die.