An Appraisal of Murdoch and the U.S. Daily Press

Article excerpt

When Australian media entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch began buying newspapers in the United States in the 1970s, media watchers were quick to condemn him and his brand of journalism. British journalist Anthony Smith characterized his approach as "an unceasing flow of titillation, sensation, voyeuristic excitement... "(1) The Nation agreed that Murdoch's secret "...might be called the Four "S" Formula -- scare headlines, sex, scandal and sensation... ,"(2)

Murdoch seems to enjoy provoking people, particularly those who consider themselves the elite. His combative spirit has been sharpened by years of criticism from rival journalists and from academics. But with his media empire spanning three continents, he has rarely felt compelled to explain, much less defend, himself: "I don't give a damn what the media critics say. It's what your readers say."(3) American newspapers take themselves too seriously, he has said. "The role of a newspaper is to inform, but in such a way that people buy your paper. It is not for us to say what public taste ought to be."(4) But Murdoch, who cut his journalistic teeth at dailies in Australia and class conscious Britain, followed a model of circulation-based newspaper financing that produced mixed results in the United States.

This article takes a before-and-after look at Murdoch's U.S. daily newspaper acquisitions to determine what happened to the content of those newspapers under his direction. Two earlier studies of changes at his U.S. newspaper acquisitions are consulted as are present findings from two additional similar studies in an attempt to draw conclusions as to the existence of a Murdoch formula of daily journalism.

Murdoch's first newspaper properties

Murdoch first became a newspaper owner when he inherited the Adelaide (Australia) News and the Sunday Mail from his father. In 1960 he bought the Sydney Daily Mirror, a tabloid about to expire. It was here that he first practiced the sensationalistic formula for which he later became known, filling the Mirror's pages with crime and cheesecake. Murdoch won the circulation war in Sydney, and the tactics he learned there became the pattern for his acquisitions elsewhere -- buy the underdog in a market, then go under the competition with crime, sex, sensation and scandal. But while he w as practicing his sensationalistic journalism, he also started Australia's prestige newspaper, The Australian, in 1964. It was the country's first national newspaper, published simultaneously in all major cities in the country. Though the newspaper has suffered some damage to its reputation since its founding, it is considered the premiere Australian newspaper.(5)

In 1969 he bought the British News of the World, a popular Sunday paper with the largest circulation in the world. Shortly thereafter he bought The (London) Sun, a broadsheet about to fold, made it a tabloid and inaugurated the first daily photo of a nude in a British paper. Circulation soared from 700,000 at his takeover to more than 4 million by 1982. In Australia Murdoch had seemed to reach for balance by publishing both the most sensationalistic and the most respectable newspapers. In London he did the same with his 1981 purchase of the venerable Times, which was struggling to stay alive, and the Sunday Times. While producing some of the world's most sensationalistic journalism in The Sun, he did not apply those tactics to content in The Times, though he did introduce more conservative content and a shake-up of management practices.(6)

Murdoch in the United States

The San Antonio Express-News

Murdoch bought his first U.S. dailies in 1973: the San Antonio Express and San Antonio News. The News was marginally profitable against its competition, the Hearst-owned p.m. Light, for years considered the most sensationalistic daily in Texas. The News went under (became more sensational than) the Light not only with headlines, but also with front-page makeup that looked, as Time observed, ". …