What Rupert Wrote

Insight from a pre-scandal letter to News Corp. stockholders

The Rupert Murdoch who appeared before the British Parliament was nothing like the Rupert Murdoch of reputation. But even that Rupert Murdoch is not the full version. For some insight into that it helps read to read his annual letter to stockholders, which helps explain how he sees News Corporation. Or at least how he saw it before the scandal.

It was just about a year ago that Rupert Murdoch sat down to tell News Corporation stockholders in his annual letter that the company would be “squarely in the news spotlight” in the coming year. At the time, he said, it would be because of the company’s “bold, strategic moves.”

Addressed appropriately, since he owns 38 percent of the company, to “dear fellow stockholders,” the letter was its usual mix of business bravado and media insight. His letters may not have the cachet of Warren Buffett’s letters, but they are still some of the best written shareholder letters of any Media CEO. In what now sounds like a prophetic statement, Murdoch wrote, “When you have been in business as long as we have, you are no stranger to adversity or instability.”

At the time he was referring, of course, to the financial challenges facing the media industry, which Murdoch’s company was able to overcome, raising revenues 8 percent to a whopping $32.8 billion. The journalistic challenges, which would later become financial challenges, from the News of the World hacking scandal and beyond were confined to stories in competing newspapers, mainly The Guardian. In the letter he talked about many of the corporation’s worldwide media enterprises, but there was no mention of the News of the World even though it had once been the financial bedrock of his empire.

In contrast, he talks about The Sun, one of “our popular UK titles,” having its highest advertising revenue year ever and The Wall Street Journal growing in circulation. BSkyB, in particular, would get several mentions because, Murdoch says, he knew how “incredibly important” BSkyB and its Pay TV model could be with “the right leadership.” In part because of the pending BSkyB deal, News Corporation maintained a nearly $9 billion cash balance at the end of the year.

In the letter he talks about sitting down each summer to write the letter “to you,” clearly implying he writes the letters himself, quite probably at home and quite possibly at his Fifth Avenue triplex penthouse in New York City, one of four homes he owns around the world. As he reflected on the performance of the company, headquartered a short way away on the Avenue of the Americas, Murdoch says the thing that resonates most with him is the “consistency” of the company strategy and the “clarity” of its operations.

Some time after writing the letter, later in the summer, Murdoch would address the New York Forum in what BusinessWeek called his usual “fine, ornery form”—a stark contrast to the Murdoch who subsequently appeared before Parliament last week. That same “ornery form” can be seen in his letter. Just as at the forum, he berates the government in the US and elsewhere about the “unpredictability” of the global economic recovery because of the sovereign debt pressures, soaring deficits, and US unemployment.

But he focuses most of his attention on the “even more unpredictable” technological transformation taking place in the media industry, a transformation that, in typical Murdoch fashion, he sees more as an opportunity than a challenge. Indeed, much of his letter focuses on the need to marry technology and content, telling stockholders, “Our media companies must find our media talent partnering with our engineering talent to create new consumer experiences.”

He goes on to say that we live in an ‘era of innovation… a digital renaissance’ which he adds in typical Murdoch hyperbole, “is bringing us closer to a global meritocracy than at any time in human history.” In the end, he says, News Corporation will be in the forefront of that move, maintaining its “leadership position for decades to come.”

Clearly, when you read the letter, you can see that “content” is a key word in the Murdoch lexicon. At that time, Murdoch was able to brag that “our content channels have never been stronger” and that News Corporation, the world’s second largest media conglomerate behind Disney, was actually “the world’s leading content provider.” The video production business was thriving, and his newspapers were “expanding their brands through new technologies.”

At the time he was also able to say that News Corporation was leading the media world “in the charge to develop new models to ensure fair payment for our journalism.” With good reason, he adds. In words that might now seem apocalyptic, he writes, “quality journalism requires a big investment—finding good reporters and editors, creating state-of-the-art newsrooms, deploying resources around the world.”

That theme of ‘quality journalism’ is a recurring one in Murdoch’s letters. In the previous year’s letter, he used almost the same words as in this year’s letter, saying, “quality journalism is not cheap.” In fact, that annual report even had the words captioned across one of the many full-page glossy pictures in the annual report with the word “journalism” highlighted in contrasting colors. It will be interesting to see what Murdoch says about journalism in his next letter, which he probably has already written because of the company’s fiscal year, but which he may now be editing in light of the scandal—criminal investigations, potential lawsuits, governance and stockholder questions—enveloping his company.

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Michael Castenegra teaches broadcast and digital journalism at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. Tags: , , , , ,