New York Observer

Rupert’s Post Game: His Royal Pie-ness Story on Page SShhh

7/26/11 7:56pm

No one in News Corp.’s New York headquarters knew quite what to do when the pie landed on Rupert Murdoch.

“The newsroom stopped,” said one person inside the Wall Street Journal offices at the time, where the hearing was being broadcast on the televisions in the bullpen.

Outside, two NYPD cars were parked directly opposite of the building’s main entrance on Avenue of the Americas, while a CNN reporter filmed a report with Mr. Murdoch’s flagship building in the background. Inside, Mr. Murdoch’s operations tried to carry on: Fox News ran the London hearing live, and the Journal reporters—upon recovering—prepared a front-page story for the next morning.

But the pie-stained moment—which included Mr. Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng, slapping the assailant, and his son, James, complaining to the police—was, in many ways, tailor-made for Mr. Murdoch’s favorite local outlet, the tabloid he had twice bought and most closely resembles the embodiment of his life’s work: Turning dry dispassionate reports of government bodies into dramatic, personal narratives of powerful men and business elites behaving badly. And yet, if any Murdoch news outlet had something resembling an emotional desire to protect the 80-year-old Australian on what he called the “most humble” day of his life, it was the New York Post, the money-losing property that has long felt like a physical extension of its doting owner. The Post ran the story on page 35.

 

“He cried when he lost the Post the first time,” said Marc Kalech, who was managing editor of the paper when Mr. Murdoch bought the paper for a second time, in 1993. Mr. Murdoch had first purchased it in 1977, but was forced to relinquish it in 1988, when he bought a television station in the same market, which, at the time, was prohibited by federal rules.

“He would call the Post every day,” said Mr. Kalech, who started as a copy boy at the Post in 1966 and recalled how Mr. Murdoch turned the tabloid into an extension of himself. “The Post was his baby. It was his voice. He loved the Post. I can’t tell you how many times I was alone on a Saturday putting together the Sunday paper and he’d call from his yacht in the South Pacific.”

Sometimes, the message was delivered in person.

Jared Paul Stern, who had been under contract to write for Page Six, remembered his boss’s unmistakable influence didn’t need to be spelled out in a memo to staff.

“The Clintons were a very rich target. Anything you could get on them, embarrassing or otherwise, would be welcomed with open arms,” Mr. Stern recalled. Then, one day, Mr. Clinton “showed up in the news room with Rupert. He had gotten friendly with Rupert. After that, we couldn’t touch them. They would kill anything we got on the Clintons. The most we could muster is a blind item.”

 

  Rupert Murdoch  II Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Rupert Murdoch II Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

 

One reporter was told by his editor that “Rupert ordered” a look into the connections between then-governor David Paterson and the lobbying activities of his father, Basil Paterson, according to a Post insider. It was, in fairness, a sound story to investigate, but there was an implied understanding that the reporter should turn up something, since his editor felt the need to mention where the idea came from.

Mr. Murdoch’s influence was so unambiguous and obvious, that often times, his preference was simply assumed.

One former reporter said his own editor requested a week’s worth of stories about the New York City public schools because “Rupert was going to be in town.” It was coveted real estate in the paper, and the reporter reluctantly obliged.

For Mr. Murdoch, the value of the paper has always been its ability to rattle the echo chamber. It helped thrust Ed Koch into Gracie Mansion (and mistakenly drafted him to run for governor), mercilessly mocked Governor Paterson until he dropped his bid for a full term as governor, and literally sent the clowns into Albany when a sloppily executed coup in the State Senate brought state government to halt.

None of which has translated into financial success. Unlike the News of the World, which Mr. Murdoch was quick to shutter despite boasting the largest circulation in England, the Post has never made money under Mr. Murdoch.

While the Journal enjoys a sleek office and comfortable furniture, Post staffers said they haven’t seen new computers in ages, and some important positions have lately gone unfilled. The paper’s well-respected politics editor, Gregg Birnbaum departed abruptly for Politico in December, after clashing with Editor-in-Chief Col Allan, and has yet to be replaced.

All of which has led to questions about how long a paper can survive on Mr. Murdoch’s affinity alone. Mr. Murdoch’s son, James, reportedly pushed the company to shutter News of the World, and he has yet to evince his father’s old-school affection for the printed product.

“I’ve always felt that when Rupert is gone and the bean counters look at the company, the parts that lose millions of dollars a year are unlikely to fare well,” said one person who agreed to be identified only as “a person employed at a News Corp. tabloid in New York City.”

The difficult part might be finding a buyer for a money-losing operation that has yet to adapt to the web.

“It has to be bought by somebody who is willing to absorb those kind of losses,” said John Catsimatidis, who estimated the annual shortfall at somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million dollars. Mr. Catsimatidis would seem to be just the kind of person interested in owning the Post—what with his deep pockets and longstanding interest in pushing New York politics to the right. But Mr. Catsimatidis said he hadn’t thought about it, and anyway, he prefers to read his news online. “The problem with newspapers is you’re reading yesterday’s news,” he said.