When he was an 18-year-old cadet fetching pies for journalists nursing Saturday hangovers, none of Robert Thomson’s colleagues at the Melbourne Herald could have imagined he’d end up running the world’s biggest and most influential newspaper company. But there was no doubt the kid — named the head of News Corporation’s publishing arm last week — was going places.

“Robert was very quiet, very unassuming but exactly what you’d want in a cadet: deferential, smart and keen to please,” Bruce Guthrie, the paper’s Saturday chief-of-staff at the time, recalled to Crikey. “I wouldn’t say he was a big personality.”

Thomson originally planned to study law, but deferred when he was offered a Herald and Weekly Times cadetship in 1979. His intake included John Lyons (who went on to edit The Sydney Morning Herald and is now Middle East correspondent for The Australian) and Peter Wilson (The Oz‘s veteran Europe correspondent). The trio had an advantage over their fellow applicants: they had all attended Catholic schools (Lyons and Thomson were alumni of Christian Brothers College in St Kilda). Bill Hoey, who oversaw the cadet intake, had Christian Brothers connections; some at the company, perhaps jokingly, complained you had to be Catholic to get in the front door.

The Herald was an afternoon broadsheet, meaning reporters had 90 minutes at most to turn around a story by deadline (around 9am). Young journalists learnt to get it right and get it in the paper. If you couldn’t handle extreme pressure or take direction you didn’t last long.

After four years, Thomson was hired as a feature writer by The SMH which offered more scope for detailed investigations and carefully crafted pieces. A series taking readers behind the scenes of the judiciary was his break-out moment. “That’s when he stepped out of the pack and became a major name,” Guthrie said.

Crikey chairman Eric Beecher, then the paper’s editor, recalls: “As a young reporter in the mid-’80s, Robert was undoubtedly one of the rising stars of The Sydney Morning Herald newsroom. Cool, thoughtful and quietly ambitious. What we didn’t fully discern then was his thrusting upward pragmatism, but with hindsight it was definitely lurking.”

Thomson was already showing a canny ability to be at the right place at the right time. As Beijing correspondent for The SMH, and later the Financial Times, he reported on the massacre at Tiananmen Square. As Tokyo correspondent he covered the rise and fall of Japan’s bubble economy.

Not all journalists make great editors. But Thomson has proved himself, time and again, to be a masterful change agent.

“He’s extremely bright,” said Andrew Butcher, News Corp’s former senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications. “He has a great ability to look at the media in a macro way and find ways of making things work.”

As editor of the Weekend Financial Times, Thomson oversaw a redesign that made it the UK’s fastest growing newspaper. As FT‘s American editor, he more than tripled US sales. Yet in 2001 he was overlooked for the editorship of the paper  seemingly the only major setback in his career.

Thomson thought he’d been dudded and so did Rupert Murdoch. The mogul, according to Guthrie, virtually “stalked” Thomson until he agreed to edit The Times of London. He converted the venerated broadsheet into a tabloid and, again, circulation shot up.

“He’s still the boy from the Victorian bush in that he’s a genuinely nice person. He hasn’t suddenly become a media megastar or a wanker.”

Murdoch and Thomson had struck up a friendship in New York and it’s no mystery why. Both share a birthday (30 years apart), both learned the trade at the Melbourne Herald and both have Chinese wives. Thomson, according to Vanity Fair, was the only News Corp employee to attend the baptism of Rupert and Wendi Deng’s children. Murdoch is also godfather to Thomson’s two sons.

Guthrie says the “personal chemistry” between the pair was obvious at News Corp editor meetings, held at Murdoch’s Californian ranch. While most editors were grateful to have an audience with the mogul, Thomson and Murdoch had a “close, comfortable relationship”.

“Rupert is suspicious of intellectual people but likes intelligent people,” Guthrie said, noting Thomson fits the bill perfectly.

When Murdoch was circling the Dow Jones group (which publishes The Wall Street Journal) Thomson acted as a confidant and adviser, later becoming the Journal‘s managing editor. Murdoch and Thomson gave the paper an extreme makeover — boosting political coverage, creating a section devoted to New York and dumping the paper’s iconic, eccentric front-page features in favour of snappy news reports. Traditionalists hated it but, again, circulation rose — bucking the trend of dwindling US newspaper sales. The Journal is now America’s top-selling paper, beating The New York Times and USA Today.

Unlike other News editors, Thomson, who has described himself as a “wimpy nerd”, isn’t a brawler and isn’t boofy. Wall Street Journal staff told the New Yorker in 2010 he tends to unnerve people with his silences rather than with rants.

According to Butcher: “He’s still the boy from the Victorian bush in that he’s a genuinely nice person. He hasn’t suddenly become a media megastar or a wanker.”

Yet Thomson — who has a habit of speaking in aphorisms and alliterations — can be acerbic when he wants to be. He’s blasted the media for its “affectionate” reporting of the Obama administration, accused Google of being a “parasite”, upbraided reporters for writing to win awards and advised journalism students to join NGOs if they want to “expiate their bourgeois guilt”.

“Journalists should be unruly and feisty, not lap-dogs with laptops or meek members of a political movement,” he wrote in 2010. All these sentiments, it’s worth noting, appear to chime perfectly with what we know about Rupert Murdoch’s worldview.

As CEO of News Corp, Thomson is undoubtedly facing his biggest challenge yet. Sagging newspaper profits will no longer be buttressed by revenue from Murdoch’s film or TV interests (besides Foxtel). And his experience is all on the editorial rather than commercial side.

“It’s one thing to run a newspaper, it’s another to run an enterprise from top to bottom,” Guthrie said. “At News Limited I’ve seen people adept at running newspapers given businesses to run and they didn’t do a good job at all.”

If Thomson feels intimidated, however, he’d be the last to let on. “Too many journalists are too pessimistic about the future,” he said in 2006. “I am basically an old hack who started as a copy boy at an afternoon newspaper, making tea and ensuring that the pile of carbon paper was constantly replenished, and yet I have never experienced a time of greater opportunity for good journalism …

“The negative navel-gazing in journalistic circles is unhealthy for the industry and for individuals. Fatalism tends to be fatal.”