Is Rupert Murdoch Losing His Magic Touch?

Two years ago, Rupert Murdoch bestrode the media world like a colossus. News Corp.’s stock simmered above $25 a share as properties from MySpace to American Idol to Fox Sports stood tall. A business news channel was in the works, and Murdoch was gunning for Dow Jones as the jewel in his media crown. Today, if you listen closely, you can hear the air leaking out.

It’s not just the Great Recession (to use the name currently in vogue). Ever since the purchase of Dow Jones, signs of fatigue and weakness have been appearing in nearly every area of Murdoch’s empire. News Corp.’s share price has fallen 77 percent from its 2007 high to $6 Friday, compared to a 56 percent fall in the S&P 500.

That’s not to say Dow Jones was a bad move. (Although it was a mightily overpriced one; News Corp.’s $14 billion market cap is only two and a half times the $5.6 billion it paid for Dow Jones.) Dow Jones has given News Corp. a strong foothold in online news. Its sites’ traffic grew 76 percent last year, and while the Wall Street Journal’s page views are significantly smaller than the New York Times’, its growth is twice as fast.

So why did operating income at News Corp.’s newspaper division fall 9 percent last quarter? Because other newspapers it owns aren’t being as spry as the Journal and its sister sites about driving traffic. Many are clinging desperately to print formats. As has been said over and over, it’s not the news(paper) business that’s dying, it’s the print platform.

Operating income is falling faster in other divisions: down 93 percent in television last quarter, 84 percent in satellite and 72 percent in film (Fox studios had only two of the top 20 grossing movies last year). New technologies are undermining these and other areas of its empire. Why bother with cable or satellite TV when you can get the many best programs online? Many are canceling their pay TV subscriptions to save precious dollars. Others who keep watching are using TiVo or other personal video recorders that let them skip channels commercials.

But News Corp. isn’t showing signs it can capitalize on digital media. Many MySpace pages, once lovingly nurtured, have gone to seed, and the site’s revenue was down 3 percent to $226 million, while operating income fell 85 percent to $7 million. The move by Hulu, of which News Corp. owns 45 percent, to box out Boxee is not only unpopular, it’s becoming a PR black eye. These challenges could grow more daunting as Peter Chernin, the executive with a reputation for really understanding digital media and issues like digital-rights, heads for the exits.

That leaves News Corp. with a sprawling empire of businesses struggling to keep up with a fast-changing world. And it leaves Murdoch looking like an old media baron — which he may have been all along.

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Oxfam America

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