Find a market less travelled, exploit it and watch it grow
January 15, 2024 By Nick Howard
Marshal McLuhan’s 1967 publication, The Media is the Massage (with the word ‘message’ misspelt) brought forth modern thinking when studying the increased presence of various forms of messaging from an expanding media industry. McLuhan rightfully showcased the rising importance of advertising in the lives of consumers. Content alone wasn’t enough; it had to be eyeball-snatching to grab and hold our attention.
Rupert Murdoch is one such media mogul who understood this well. From an early age, he built his empire on a simple premise: give consumers something different. In September 2023, 92-year-old Murdoch stepped down as chair of News Corp and Fox News, leaving behind a dynasty that includes print and television media.
Australian-born Murdoch found himself at the helm of his late father’s fledgling newspaper group, News Limited (now News Corp) in Adelaide, Australia. In 1952, soon after his father’s passing, Murdoch saw the opportunity to build a distinct market for his newspaper, embracing the tabloid format and offering salacious headlines, which were the opposite of the staid conservative broadsheets typical in Australia, America, and Europe. He realized competing for readership using the established playbooks wouldn’t increase readership or profits. During the next two decades, Murdoch replicated his formula to become Australia’s largest newspaper publisher. He then he turned his attention to Britain.
The United Kingdom
London’s Fleet Street, home of all the great British papers, operated as if it were 1869, not 1969, when Murdoch purchased News of the World. Publishers and powerful print unions were locked in a perpetual round of disputes. The unions stifled technological progress with bloated ranks and refused to modernize the print process. But publishers were still making money since newspapers commanded the lion’s share of news and, more importantly, advertising.
With quick success at News of the World, and after a vigorous battle with Robert Maxwell for ownership of the Sun shortly after, Murdoch reworked the Sun from a broadsheet to a tabloid and juiced it up with brassy headlines, plenty of sport and titillating pictures of women. The modern tabloid was thus born.
In Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were marching toward the right, and Murdoch’s papers supported her as she took a sledgehammer to deep-seated unionism in the country. Fleet Street was well past its expiry date, still embracing letterpress to print all national papers. Offset had not entered the picture even though the technology was mature and used elsewhere in Europe. So, in 1986, Murdoch secretly took over an old factory at Wapping and purchased the latest electronic pre-press equipment and new offset presses, where they were set up, ready for his final ultimatum to the powerful, yet behind-the-times print unions: either reduce your numbers or be out of a job. The unions refused and were summarily fired, forcing 6,000 members on the street.
Meanwhile, the new Wapping factory (with a small contingent of bused-in non-union replacement workers) started up the Sun and News of the World presses and carried on without missing a beat. Murdoch had won a decisive battle.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean
Murdoch would see other successes, with the addition of the famed the Times in 1981. Still restless, Murdoch next cast his eye on America. In 1974, he moved to New York City, where he launched the trashy Star, a gossip-filled tabloid. This was followed in 1976 with the purchase of the New York Post. But then he cast his net wider and established 20th Century Fox studios along with Metromedia, a small group of TV stations. In 1986, the new Fox Broadcasting Company would have two hits, the Simpsons and the X-Files. Murdoch had already invested in British TV with Sky Television in 1983.
It wasn’t long before Murdoch envisioned the next great opportunity ripe for huge profits. CNN and MSNBC, both left-of-centre networks, dominated cable news for years. Competing for viewers with similar content made no sense. The obvious choice was to offer content to the right-of-centre viewer. In 1996, Murdoch would do just that with Fox News.
Canadian hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky was once asked about his secret. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” he responded. This logic epitomizes Murdoch. He reasoned that competing in mass communications required a new approach to develop a loyal base of consumers who sought a unique voice. Once he realized this, making money was as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Nobody else was there; open ice provided more chances to score!
Praise him or loath him; it doesn’t matter. Murdoch may not even believe what his tabloids or Fox News publishes daily. But he does know how to make a buck, and this is a valuable lesson for our world of print. Versions of the Sun are now sold all over the world. They attract those who feel disenfranchised, often angry, and usually right-of-centre. Nobody saw this wide-open market until Rupert Murdoch, and it’s a lesson for print communication: Find new markets, develop new products, and go where no one has gone before.
Nick Howard, partner in Howard Graphic Equipment and Howard Iron Works, is a printing historian, consultant and Certified Appraiser of capital equipment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of PrintAction.
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