Starting out as a newspaper publisher in his native Australia, Rupert Murdoch (born 1931) became a powerful media entrepreneur with wide holdings in England and the United States. His style of journalism evoked criticism from serious readers but served the entertainment needs of a broad audience.
Born March 11, 1931, in Melbourne, Australia, (Keith) Rupert Murdoch was the son of a distinguished journalist. His father, Sir Keith Murdoch, was a celebrated World War I reporter who later became chief executive of the leading Melbourne Herald newspaper group. From the beginning in 1955 with the tiny Adelaide News inherited from his father (who died in 1952), Murdoch created an international communications empire which eventually published over 80 papers and magazines on three continents.
In the process of expanding his $1.4 billion a year News Corp. Ltd., Murdoch acquired critics as fast as properties for his sensationalistic brand of journalism. Appealing to the prurient interests of readers, Murdoch was compared to such yellow journalism tycoons of the past as William Randolph Hearst. Yet his business philosophy of offering readers what they were willing to buy most closely resembled the outlook of entertainer P. T. Barnum.
After studying at Oxford, Murdoch entered journalism as a reporter for the Birmingham Gazette and served an apprenticeship on the London Daily Express, where he learned the secrets of building circulation from the press baron Lord Beaverbrook. Returning to Australia to begin his publishing career, Murdoch revived the Adelaide News. In 1956 bought and built up the Perth Sunday Times. In 1960 he purchased the dying Sydney Daily and Sunday Paper, which he turned into the largest selling newspaper in Australia by employing aggressive promotion and a racy tabloid style. In 1964 he started The Australian, a national paper aimed at a more serious audience.
In early 1969 Murdoch debuted as a London publisher when he gained control of the Sunday paper News of the World, the largest-circulation English-language paper in the world. Later in 1969 he bought cheaply a tired liberal paper, the Sun, which he radically transformed into a sensationalistic tabloid featuring daily displays of a topless girl on page three. The Sun became the most profitable paper in his empire. In 1983, with circulation around four million, it earned $50 million, over 40 percent of News Corp.'s annual profits. In 1981 Murdoch bought the failing but prestigious London Times.
Murdoch expanded into the American market in 1973 when he acquired the San Antonio (Texas) Express and News. In early 1974 he started the weekly tabloid the National Star (later renamed Star) to compete with the popular Enquirer. Initially a weak imitation of the Sun, it adopted a format based on celebrity gossip, health tips, and self-help advice which boosted its circulation to almost four million.
In his quest for a big-city audience, Murdoch surprised the publishing world in 1976 when he bought the New York Post, a highly regarded liberal paper. By transforming its image he nearly doubled the circulation. In 1977 he took control from Clay Felker of the New York Magazine Corp., which included the trendy New York magazine, New West, and the radical weekly the Village Voice. Focusing on the struggling paper in competitive urban markets, Murdoch extended his holdings by buying the ailing Boston Herald in 1982 and the modestly-profitable Chicago Sun-Times in 1983.
From his first involvement in publishing, Murdoch applied a recognizable formula to most of his papers. His trademark operations included rigid cost controls, circulation gimmicks, flashy headlines, and a steady emphasis on sex, crime, and scandal stories. Reminiscent of the personalized style of the fictional Citizen Kane, Murdoch's uninhibited sensationalism was scorned as vulgar and irresponsible by his peers. One critic charged that what Murdoch did "just isn't journalism—it's a different art form."
On the other hand, Murdoch was seen as an astute and effective popular journalist who catered to the interests of his audiences, a view he espoused. Ignoring his critics, he regarded most papers as too elitist in their approach and too bland in appearance. He preferred a bright and entertaining product which would attract the largest body of readers. While he didn't think papers should be in the business of preaching to the public, he used his news columns to promote personal causes. With regard to a Labor government in Australia, he stated, "I elected them. And incidentally I'm not too happy with them. I may remove them."
Murdoch's newspaper style, though, did not fare as well in the United States as in Britain. The New York Post was a steady financial drain despite its increased circulation. Murdoch's formula did not attract advertisers. Collectively, led by the more subdued Star, Murdoch's American papers did not show a profit until 1983.
In 1983 Murdoch purchased a controlling interest in Satellite Television, a London company supplying entertainment programming to cable-television operators in Europe. His plan for beaming programs from satellites directly to homes equipped with small receivers did not progress, and his attempt to gain control of Warner Communications and its extensive film library did not succeed. However, in 1985 he did purchase the film company Twentieth Century Fox. A year later he bought six (Metromedia) television stations and sought to create a fourth major network called Fox Television. Since foreign nationals were not permitted by the United States to own a broadcast station, Murdoch became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in 1985, in order to maintain his control of Fox Television. In 1987 he bought the U.S. publishing house Harper and Row.
Other than publishing, Murdoch's business interests included two television stations in Australia, half ownership in the country's largest private airlines, book publishing, records, films (he co-produced Gallipoli), ranching, gas and oil exploration, and a share in the British wire service Reuters News Corp. Ltd. which earned almost $70 million in 1983. His holdings rivaled such U.S. giants as Time, Inc. and the Times Mirror (now Time Warner) Company. In 1988, in connection with his television network, he bought Triangle publications—with holdings that included TV Guide, the leading television program listing publication— from Walter Annenberg for $3 billion. In 1995 he underwrote the Weekly Standard, a political magazine that generally supports Republican politics. In 1997, he tried to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, which many see as another dig at his long time media competitor and rival Ted Turner, owner of the Atlanta Braves and numerous cable and broadcast networks such as CNN. Murdoch's ambitions caused him to seek out new ventures in cable broadcasting such as a Fox News service, and an all-sport network.
Murdoch's personal wealth was estimated at over $340 million. Seen as ruthless in his business dealings, Murdoch was known as being shy in his personal life. Living primarily in New York, he guarded his privacy with his wife Anna (a former Sydney Daily Mirror reporter) and their four children, one by a previous marriage.
Further Reading on Rupert Murdoch
Good Times, Bad Times (1984) by Harold Evans a former London Times editor; Arrogant Aussie: The Rupert Murdoch Story (1985; Citizen Murdoch (1987).