"This is probably the last time that these newspaper guys will be discussed on television," says Michael Wolff, media columnist for Vanity Fair, speaking slowly to draw out the drama in his words.
Wolff may be being hyperbolic, but no one in the crowd is going to disagree. Sitting in a slightly dusty corner of New York City's affably scrappy and venerably old Strand Bookstore on a rainy February evening, the audience cannot number more than 30, although the average age far exceeds that number. A small camera crew from C-Span is filming the stage.
Wolff is joined by James McGrath Morris, a journalist and biographer. Between them, the two have written biographies that bookend the modern newspaper era. Wolff's biography of Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns The News, came out in 2008, surprising many with the extent of Wolff's access to the notoriously cranky Murdoch (Wolff reportedly spent 50-60 hours in the company of Murdoch). McGrath Morris on the other hand, was unable to meet his long dead subject, Joseph Pulitzer, while writing Pulitzer: A Life In Power, Print, Power. He was, however, able to dig into history, uncovering, amongst other things, the memoirs of Pulitzer's estranged brother (who, bizarrely, also owned a New York newspaper at one point).
The link between these two media moguls may be indirect (in practical terms, it appears it would be Lord Northcliffe, the British newspaper baron parodied in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, whom both Pulitzer and Murdoch's father worked with), yet the lineage the two men share as "newspaper men" is evident.
As McGrath Morris puts it, Pulitzer was the one who "creates the stage that Murdoch will walk out onto." He was an unrepentant populist. Coming to America as a penniless, underage mercenary soldier with little grasp of English, he held onto his affection for the underclass, turning American newspapers from staid and heavily formulaic ("Every week there was a letter from London," McGrath Morris notes, "and you'd have to read all the way to the bottom to learn that the Crimea War had ended") into headline-heavy, gritty stories that would get people talking (even if sometimes they weren't strictly true).
His newspaper, The New York World, was full of color and lurid details - pushing the envelope with investigative reporting and yet also publishing the first crossword, it helped create the modern tabloid. It was half newspaper and half comic book.
Murdoch's journey was somewhat different. Wolff has pointed out repeatedly that Murdoch is the "prince" in the most important family in Australia. However, the extent of his rise has been unprecedented - the man went from owning one newspaper to having a majority stake in three of the world's most advanced media worlds - all while still, somehow, viewing himself as the outsider.
Like Pulitzer, Murdoch is a "newspaper man." Newspapers are "Rupert's folly" according to Wolff - the part of his multi-media empire that sucks up cash yet he can't let go of.
Wolff asserts, "The New York Post may have lost more money than any other media enterprise in the media business," later revealing that current Wall Street Journal editor Robert Johnson has told him not to underestimate the London Times in that regard (and Johnson should know, he used to edit the Times). In America, Murdoch appears to have some sort of reverse-Midas-touch, where everything he touches turns to crap; under his ownership, the Journal has gone from making approximately $50 million a year to losing double that.
And just like Pulitzer, Murdoch has been accused of bringing journalism into disrepute. Wolff asserts, however, that unlike Pulitzer, Murdoch doesn't care. His interest is purely in newspapers, not in journalism. Reading through what may be his most successful newspaper, The Sun, it's hard not to be taken in by the visceral reading experience: headlines are huge, catchy and usually offer some kind of play on words; stories have seemingly irrelevant details in bold in order to emphasis their scandalizing quality; articles frequently state dubious accusations as facts and editorial impartiality is a laughable concept. To top it off, Britain's builders can see their daily dose of breasts on the notorious "Page 3."
Of course, everything comes to an end. Just next week, New York magazine, a magazine that Murdoch used to own and Wolffe used to work for, is reported to be publishing an article that will detail the internal divisions of Murdoch's empire, with bleak predictions for its future - and perhaps with it, the newspaper industry as a whole. For one thing, Murdoch's offspring may not have the guts to maintain his empire (another similarity shared with Pulitzer, who's own pampered children complained when not offered a man-servant for their Harvard dorms. As Wolff notes, "Newspaper heirs are always problematic"). Even if Murdoch's progeny are as savvy as him, it seems unlikely they will share his enthusiasm for the ever-more-unprofitable newspaper industry.
And then there's the wider problem - that traditional media has been superceded by a new form of online media, media that is both broader and more fragmented, and, crucially, makes a lot less money.
Of course, Murdoch's still fighting. He's in New York right now, holding a conference on his new favorite subject - enforcing payment for online articles (Wolff recently blogged that News Corp will most likely favor a Hulu-style model). He's also decided to take on his greatest nemesis, the Sulzburger family's distastefully reputable (in his eyes) New York Times, by pushing metro NYC coverage for the Wall Street Journal, and fighting over the major metropolitan newspaper advertisers - or at least those still around.
But Murdoch is 78. For all the chutzpah he still has, there is one thing he can't beat - time. At the Strand, every person there, Wolff, McGrath Morris, the audience, staff and camera crew, know this, and the subject is barely mentioned - it's a given. "It's like we're at a funeral for the media!" jokes McGrath Morris as the discussion ends, acknowledging the issue we'd been skirting around, not through fear, but through weariness.
The thing is, McGrath Morris is wrong. It's not the media that is dying. Where did we first hear about New York magazine's damning Murdoch article? It was in another damning Murdoch article over at Gawker, Nick Denton's incredibly successful Manhattan media blog that has recently been expanding past Conde Nast cafeteria chatter to national issues and real reporting. Like Murdoch and Pulitzer, Denton seems to be more interested in experimenting with mediums than making money, playing the outsider card (like both men, he's a foreigner), and creating something that actually gets people talking, rather than adhering to traditional journalistic standards.
Even Wolff, though too sheepish to plug while at the Strand, has become something of a mini-mogul with his website Newser. Sure, the "newspaper guys" might be on their way out, but Murdoch and Pulitzer built their empire's using a cult of personality and a stubborn streak, not just the physical format - and we should be ready for another phase of the media moguls.