IT HAS NOT been a particularly good year for New York City. The City, it's true, didn't go slurping down the financial tubes. But the election of Jimmy Carter certainly did nothing to reassure the quivering Metropolis--forget for a moment those Wall Street types and Rockefeller Foundation board members like Cy Vance and Mike Blumenthal. Where's this rural savant from anyway? Atlanta? Atlanta's where you go to make plane connections to somewhere important, like Miami Beach. And now, in the space of about a month, The New York Post--bang! New York magazine--zap! The Village Voice--good Lord, The Voice, for chrissakes--whoosh! All whisked away like lumps of hair and grease in the Draino commercials, sold off to some Australian. Not since young Citizen Hearst blew out of California 80 years ago to buy, with his daddy's considerably-more-than-30-pieces of blood-stained silver money, a socialist German-language newspaper and start the Spanish-American War has New York faced such a challenge from the West. Things fall apart. Now what rough beast with the legs of a kangaroo, the body of a killer bee, and the shrewdness of a platypus slouches towards Gotham to be born?
He is Rupert Murdoch, the owner of 87 newspapers in Australia, Britain and the United States. His holdings outside the United States include The Australian, Australia's only national newspaper, and The News of the World, which has a Sunday circulation--the largest in London--of somewhere around 3.5 million and is quite possibly the worst newspaper in the world. In this country, Murdoch controls The National Star, modeled after The National Enquirer (supermarket checkout aisle journalism), and the San Antonio News-Express. This week Murdoch is splashed across the covers of both Time and Newsweek, on one as King Kong and the other under the headline PRESSLORD TAKES CITY, a true cultural hero in his own right, bigger even the Bruce Springsteen, the last face accorded the dual cover honor.
A CLOSER LOOK at the Murdoch chain reveals that comparisons with other presslords past and present may be premature. Twenty-three per cent of Murdoch's papers are English weeklies; another 30 are suburban Australian weekly papers that are practically given away. But there is one thing that can be said of the Murdoch papers--almost uniformly, they make money, and lots of it. One of the few exceptions is the Sydney-based Australian, which as Australia's leading newspaper, threw considerable clout into the election of Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. A few years later The Australian threw even more clout--and a good deal of Murdoch's money--into unseating the first Labor premier in 20 years. In London, Murdoch owns not only the immensely profitable News of the World, but the more staid Sun, also a moneymaker. And the next time you're in the A&P, check the housewives gathered around The National Star.
It was well known that Murdoch had ambitions to enlarge his empire: at the same time he was maneuvering with Dorothy Schiff, former owner of The New York Post, for control of that paper, he was engaged in an abortive attempt to buy the London Sunday Observer--which subsequently was sold to Atlantic-Richfield for one dollar, mostly to keep it out of Murdoch's hands. He also made a similarly unsuccessful attempt to purchase the ailing Washington Star. It thus came as no great surprise when Murdoch bought the tabloid Post from 73-year-old publisher Schiff last November for $31 million.
The real surprise came the next month. After length negotiations that included jetting off to Aspen to find majority stockholder Carter Burden, and the expenditure of $15 million, Murdoch became the owner of not only New York and its fledgling cousin New West, but of The Village Voice as well.
The good guy in the story is Clay Felker, editor of all three magazines. Felker took over New York, originally the Sunday supplement to the now defunct New York Herald-Tribune, when that newspaper folded in 1968, and made it into the model for slick magazines centering around a particular city. He made money too--revenues of $26 million last year. But Felker started New West last year, and spent about $2 million more than the allotted $1 million budgeted for the magazine's first year of publication; the result was four straight quarters in the red. New York stock, with a par value of $10, limped along between $2 and $3 for most of the year. Felker is a minority stockholder--he only owns 10.2 per cent of the company--and other shareholders began to howl for his head. Felker took his troubles to a friend of his, Rupert Murdoch, who offered to buy New York at $5 a share, which Felker refused.
Enter the villain, Carter Burden. The reason Felker is the minority stockholder in his own concern is because two years ago New York bought the Voice, with Carter Burden's money. Burden, the great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and his friend Bartle Bull, ended up with 34 per cent of New York stock.
Having consulted friend number one Murdoch about selling, Felker went off to Washington to discuss the sale of the three magazines to the Washington Post. Felker had decided to sell to Katherine Graham, dowager empress of American journalism, taking a deal that was unattractive financially but which would leave him in charge of editorial operations. Meanwhile, unknown to Felker, Murdoch, friend number one, had approached friend number two Burden with an offer of $7 a share. And Burden was churlish; he didn't want to sell his magazines to the dowager empress. He took his skis and went off to Aspen to think about it, and the deadline to sell to the Post came and went.
BURDEN--characterized by acerbic Voice press columnist Alexander Cockburn as an "outstanding argument for 100 per cent inheritance tax"--is a dabbler. He dabbles in New York City politics, where he is a city councilman. He dabbles in Manhattan society. He dabbles in journalism, and maybe journalism began to bore him. Just as Burden yawned, there was a check for $7.6 million in his mouth like a big moth, a check from Rupert Murdoch--they had mutual friends--offering him $8.25 a share for his stock. Murdoch had chartered a jet and flown to Aspen to make the offer. In the face of such consideration (one gets the impression that Burden didn't even have to take off his skis) the deal went down. Murdoch had been busy; he had lined up other stockholders and with the addition of Burden's chunk had bought or had proxies for exactly 51 per cent of The New York Magazine Company's stock.
The only person who hadn't been busy, it seems, was Clay Felker. At the first board meeting after the sale, Murdoch demanded two seats on the board, finalizing his control of the company. Murdoch also told Felker he thought he was an editorial genius and asked him to stay and run the magazine. Felker refused, and got busy, winning a temporary injunction preventing the sale of the burden bloc to Murdoch. Voice and New York magazine staffers staged a short walk-out in support of their editor. But later that week, it was back to the conference table. Felker got $1.5 million for his shares, another $360,000 in severance pay, and an extension on his $300,000 loan from New York.
THE REAL LOSERS in the fiasco are the staffers of The Voice and New York. Although it may be more a reflection on the sorry state of American magazine writing than on the two magazines' brilliance, New York provided an outlet for talented writers like Richard Reeves. The Voice, besides press critic Cockburn, probably the best of his ilk since A. J. Liebling, printed Nat Hentoff, Ken Auletta, and Robert Christgau, probably the best pop music critic around. Andrew Sarris is arguably the best film critic in America. And "The Greasy Pole," a political column co-written by Cockburn and James Ridgeway, provides some of the best leftist commentary on American politics today. It's hard to see these people being coddled by Murdoch, a bottom-line guy, the way they were by Felker.
Murdoch's purchase of the three magazines may be part of a disturbing new trend--the consolidation of American magazines under a central ownership the way American daily newspapers began to huddle in chains during the 1950s. During that period, a morning newspaper might buy its afternoon rival to consolidate costs, creating monopoly, or what A. J. Liebling called "profitable stagnation." The news that gets reported may not be all that's fit to print; sometimes it may be, like Pravda, what the monopolist decides is news.
Murdoch, by his own admission, is "a businessman who wants to be an editor." He recently set goals of raising The New York Post's circulation (presently 490,000) to 700,000 by the end of this year and to one million by the end of 1978. The means he has used to raise circulation with other newspapers have been simple--sex and scandal, and lots of it. We haven't been treated to any VAMPIRE KILLERS STALK CONNECTICUT headlines yet, but if the November 30, 1976 cover of the Post is any indication we can still hope: the cover featured a kicker reading "The Gilmore Ruling," and under that, in what looked like 144-point type, KILL HIM. Murdoch is reported to have replied in amazement, "And I haven't laid a hand on them yet."