Thursday, July 7, 2011

News Corpse

We’ll miss it, at least a little: The 128-point-type headlines on the front page that could make a private indiscretion look like an international incident; the fiercely weird blend of ads and editorial content, scandal and seriousness, gravity and snark.

The News of the World, the most widely-read dead-tree English language news product on the planet, got its own worst prognosis today when Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corporation and tireless media velociraptor, shut the UK paper down more or less immediately — this in the wake of a years-in-the-making, still-emerging phone surveillance scandal involving the paper’s executives.

But in many ways, the shuttering of NOTW may be for News Corporation what the British like to call “the thin end of the wedge,” the first evidence of a deeply crippling damage to News Corp’s buccaneer business style, and a sordid first or second act in the final undoing of News Corp’s primacy as a newsgathering organization.

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The full-on NOTW scandal has developed at breathtaking speed, but its origins stretch back more than nine years. Allegations have emerged since late spring that NOTW reporters and paid operatives were enlisted in hacks of the telephone and voice mail accounts of (among others) the actors Sienna Miller, Hugh Grant and Jude Law, slain British soldiers, the father of a victim of the terrorist attack in London in July 2005, and Amanda Jane (Milly) Dowler, a missing teenage girl found murdered in 2002.

In May, The Independent UK reported that “Scotland Yard now believes that the number of likely victims of the private detective Glenn Mulcaire, who was commissioned by the NOTW to eavesdrop on messages, has now reached at least 400.”

Making matters worse, plutocrat-in-training James Murdoch, News Corp deputy COO and son of Rupert, is thought to be implicated, suspected as he is of paying people for silence in the matter, reportedly writing hush-money £1 million checks to sweep the whole thing under the News Corp boardroom’s Berber rug.

Now it gets official. British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced plans for two inquiries, one into the NOTW allegations directly, and another into the role that giantism and concentration of ownership play in the UK media, and how a Murdochian grip on that country’s media can be avoided in the future.

What’s next? The pending arrest by British police of Andy Coulson, NOTW editor during the time the hacking was believed to have occurred. Other asses are expected to be in other slings shortly thereafter. A fish stinks from the head down.

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There’s an anti-populist aspect to this that couldn’t be more damaging to the everyman, tabloid brand that News Corp properties have personified for decades. Author and media critic Michael Wolff understands this. “You don’t necessarily identify with celebrities and politicians,” Wolff said on “Countdown” on Wednesday. “But suddenly these are people — a girl who was kidnapped, the parents of soldiers who have died — we’re into the experience that means something to us.”

Wolff’s mostly right, but it’s wider than that. What’s unfolding now is important as an experience that means something to millions of us.

The breadth and reach of Murdoch’s domain — not unlike Charles Foster Kane’s “empire upon an empire” — has depended on the idea of being on the side of the little guy or gal in the street. The NOTW scandal suggests, at least in UK media, that that kind of goodwill will be hard to come by again.

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And inconveniently for Murdoch, his challenges don’t end at the water’s edge. News Corp has lost luster in the United States, too.

First there was the departure of Glenn Beck, the whack-job political fabulist and commentator who was bounced from News Corp-owned Fox News in the wake of increasingly bizarre on-air displays of intolerance and fabrication, and the desertion of advertisers who left Fox in droves thanks to Beck's antics.

Then came News Corp’s sale of MySpace, the social networking Web site that News Corp triumphantly acquired in 2005 for $580 million … only to sell the company, on June 29, to a fledgling media outfit for $35 million — chump change, about what Rupert’s got in the couch cushions at home.

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Understandably, the financial pundits are looking at News Corp’s woes from a bottom-line perspective. CNN reported today, quoting an analyst, that NOTW only generates about 3 percent of News Corp’s annual earnings. CNN, borrowing from the most recent News Corp quarterly report, reported that all of News Corp’s publishing accounted for about 25 percent of overall revenue of $24.4 billion.

But that isn’t necessarily surprising. The damage isn’t to News Corporation’s bottom line, the MySpace fire sale notwithstanding. That bottom line’s secure and should be for decades to come. The damage is done to something else.

What that something else is will be obvious before long. At some point — and maybe it’s already started — you just know that News Corp editors’ résumés will be e-mailed and circulated to media outlets around the world. Maybe here, too.

Because right now, what's at stake isn't money. What's at stake is News Corp’s credibility: as a company with deep and wide fiduciary obligations; as a source of common cause with the millions of everyday people who read its publications; as a place for advertisers to do business; and as a repository of editors and journalists, most of whom certainly deserve better.

It’s about credibility and the fact that, as of now, every near-honorable journalistic entity under the News Corporation banner has taken a hit in that department, not through folly of its own but solely because of the owners and managers of the downmarket screed that shuts up shop in London on Sunday.

Credibility. It doesn’t show up on a balance sheet. It’s not a line item in the 10-K filed with the SEC, it’s not part of the price per company share, but it’s real as dirt just the same. News Corp and the Murdochs will find that out in the days and weeks and months to come.

Image credits: News of the World: © 2011 News Corporation. Milly Dowler: Surrey Police Department/Press Association. Glenn Beck: Fox News. Murdoch: David Shankbone, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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