Rupert Murdoch is stepping down as chair of Fox and News Corp, having built the little Australian newspaper he inherited at the age of 21 (The News of Adelaide, circulation 75,000) into a global multi-media complex of enormous political influence. He is to be succeeded by his elder son.
Myself, I have been preoccupied recently with the saga of the Dorchester Reporter, which celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its founding with an ebullient party in Boston ten days ago.
That “every banker has one good idea” is an old-time industry joke. Ed Forry’s good idea was to get out of the business. In 1983, at age 39, with banking deregulation accelerating, he quit his $24,000-a-year job as a savings bank executive to found a community newspaper in Boston’s largest neighborhood. Dorchester was then recovering from a decade of white flight to the suburbs,
Forry had some experience to start with: confirmed in St. Gregory’s Parish, he had graduated from Boston College High School and Boston College. As a community activist, he had written a column for the Dorchester Argus-Citizen, with which Forry had created a profitable yearbook business. His wife, Mary Casey Forry, would be an all-in partner. The couple had two young children and $5,000 in the bank.
The Reporter circulated monthly for several years. At first, advertising paid the way. The monthly went weekly, paid subscriptions were introduced, circulation grew. There were hard times. In 1993, as recession lingered, Forry laid off the entire staff of nine. Mary Forry died in 2004. By then, son Bill had joined the business, to become, eventually, executive editor and publisher. He married Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American who won election to the State House of Representatives in 2005, then moved on to the State Senate, a seat she held until 2018. For an account of those first twenty-five years, read the story by the late Boston Globe columnist Jack Thomas.
What is the business worth today? Decent livings for its eight fulltime staffers, paid gigs for its regular lineup of columnists and critics, and opportunities for interns and freelance writers — not 29 persons altogether, as earlier misstated. (My copy arrives a day or two late in the mail, for $60 a year). Disproportionate political influence. (Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and US Sen. Ed Markey spoke at the party.) Retained earnings, with a third-generation Forry in college. And considerably enhanced Dorchester pride.
In 1963, at the opposite end of the enterprise spectrum, a married couple of lawyers from Brooklyn saw promises in the California building boom and purchased the Golden West Savings and Loan Association in Oakland. In a go-go market of 1968, they made a public offering, Over the next forty years, Herbert and Marion Sandler ran the most successful residential mortgage lender in the county, until they sold the firm in 2006 at the top of the market for $24 billion to a North Carolina bank. Widely blamed – in their view unknowledgeably – for the subprime housing crisis, they commenced a long-planned entry to the philanthropy business.
Among many other overtures, they called Paul Steiger, who for sixteen years had been editor of The Wall Street Journal, which was just then in the process of being acquired by Rupert Murdoch. The result, in short order, was ProPublica, with an annual budget of $10 million, for the practice of WSJ-style investigative journalism.
Steiger hired as his successor Stephen Engleberg, an eighteen-year veteran of The New York Times. Effective fund-raising raising increased the annual budget to $40 million. So with a staff of a hundred or so well-seasoned journalists, ProPublica has established itself as the most successful of philanthropically-endowed news organizations that have arisen among the ruins of the old advertising-supported metropolitan print press.
What’s the second-best non-profit news organization? National Public Radio, at least in my view. And though it is reasonably well endowed, it has recently beginning a new fund-raising campaign. Lacking the same marriage of top newspaper cultures, its enterprise ventures in news are somewhat lower-key. And lacking undisputed foundational principles, it is susceptible to the regular political tempests that afflict Washington D.C.
Now back to Murdoch. How did he do it? Mostly by buying newspapers properties in down markets, then building them up experimentally instead of stripping them down. Fox News, which he founded in 1996, with former Richard Nixon pollster Roger Ailes, was a particular success; MySpace, an early competitor to Facebook, didn’t fare nearly as well.
Murdoch, 92, and in good health, has put his first-born son Lachlan in charge of all of the empire. But further struggles maybe in store. The mogul has three other children; they are entitled to equal shares under terms of his will. The conglomerate can be disassembled and shared out. But international power will probably follow the WSJ.
That in turn leads to The Washington Post. When Donald Graham sold his family’s newspaper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million, it was for far less than might have been offered by other bidders. Why was that? It wasn’t just Bezos’s deep pocket. As one of the world’s richest men, Bezos possessed both the means and the moxie to restore one of America’s three leading newspapers to robust good health. Yet it can’t have escaped Graham’s attention, either, that Bezos has four children. Thus the Post’s independence will be preserved, some how or other, well into the future.
Finally, that leads back to Boston. When the New York Times Co. sold The Boston Globe to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, in 2012, for $70 million, having mismanaged the property for more than a decade, direction of the paper itself fell to Henry’s wife Linda, a native Bostonian. She has managed to keep it not just afloat, but interesting. It is profitable, she says, though print circulation continues to decline.
At a Globe conference on the new business last week, she spoke proudly of new bureaus in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. “We’re not interested in becoming a national [paper],” she told listeners, “but, as there’s been a decline in smaller regional places, we’re trying to fill that gap.”
In Dorchester, meanwhile, the money comes from putting newsprint on the front porch. The Dorchester Reporter probably out-influences the old Boston Herald, now operated out of suburban Braintree by Media News Group, and, at least in municipal politics, rivals the Globe itself. Thanks to dynasty, Boston is once again a two newspaper town.