(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

News Corp is retreating from the world: it’s selling down, closing up, losing its clout. The COVID-19 shock is hurrying it along.

Last week, while Australian media was chattering about the “suspension” of printing their near-monopoly suburban newspapers, Foxtel couldn’t handle the influx of calls from subscribers wanting to cancel. 

Meanwhile, in its Sixth Ave New York HQ, the company continued its walk away from print with the announced sale of its advertising coupon inserts business, News America Marketing, shedding what just last year was 10% of its revenues.

It’s carrying not one, but two dying businesses — the ad-supported tabloid chain in Australia, London and New York and the dead-weight of pay TV that, in Australia, is Foxtel. It might be able to save one, but saving both seems an unachievable stretch. 

Like all media, News’ mastheads are benefitting from the flight to news. The company claims (almost certainly correctly) that both audience and subscriptions are up, although this growth will be offset by losing bulk distribution through cafes, schools and airports. It’s smartly attempting to monetise that interest by offering a free 28-day introductory digital subscription.

But the company’s tabloids here and overseas are an advertising play — and advertisers have hit pause, many of them for good. Worse, the value of the content that underpinned these businesses — outrage, sport and small-government neoliberalism — has vanished.  

Its aging demographic is genuinely fearful. It doesn’t need to be ginned up with manufactured outrage as it nestles into cosy hibernation. It doesn’t need the company’s equally manufactured enemies, like all those educated expert eggheads, public front line employees or unions who, it turns out, are the heroes we all need right now. 

The tabloids are trying to adapt. They’ve launched a feel-good supplement HiberNation. They’re restricting their outrage to targeting Australia’s two female premiers (both with fortuitously non-Anglo names) along with obligatory whacks at Albo and Shortenomics in The Australian op-eds. But their heart doesn’t really seem to be in it. 

The only passion they can bring are criticisms of China and heavy-handed policing — when it’s directed to their privileged base.

Meanwhile, the leap to big government is undoing all the company’s hard work in support of austerity economics. Hear the spluttering in this past weekend’s Australian editorial: “New normal cannot be this Whitlamesque freak show”.

Listen to the “harrumph, harrumph” echoing around their after-work glass of sauvignon blanc. 

In the time of COVID-19, there’s no opening for outrage and there’s no sport. The company is left carrying the denialist dead-weight that clogs up its commentary.

This requires (as Malcolm Turnbull would no doubt say) “agile pivoting”. As Crikey has been writing for two years, News Corp has been Lachlan’s company since at least January 2018 when news leaked about Rupert’s fall on his son’s boat (sparking a continuing decline in its share price). Yet as Ben Smith wrote of him in The New York Times last month: 

Mr Murdoch is likable and handsome. But even his allies told me they no longer think he has the political savvy or the operational skills his job demands.

Ouch! Smith was writing about Murdoch’s failure to prevent the Fox News toxic sludge of denial about the virus (which has apparently raised internal fears of yet another legal action). But he could just as well be writing about News Corp. (Fox and News Corp were split in 2013. Both remain under Murdoch family control.)

For a global corporation, Murdoch companies have a remarkably old-fashioned management style. Top down, almost absolutist (as you’d expect of The Sun king) but surprisingly hands off. Decisions are either made in New York, or, more often, not made at all. The corporate outposts are left to chug along, relying on their best understanding of where the tracks have been laid down from on high.

The last Australian boss who attempted to change direction, Kim Williams, resigned in 2013, less than two years after being appointed.

As Eric Beecher wrote in Crikey on Friday, bullying and blaming others has always been central to the News Corp strategy. Right now, it’s the big tech platforms. But now, it seems more like just noise that (h/t Matthew Arnold) conceals their retreat beneath a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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