This dynasty won’t end with Rupert: The Murdoch story is still being written

Australians knew this day would come – and we knew that unlike the Roy children in the HBO series Succession, it would not culminate with the family losing power over the company or the global news cycle.

That’s not how this story started and certainly not how it ends; you should have asked us.

Australians grew up in a media landscape entirely dominated by Murdoch’s mastheads and two generations came of age in a political landscape shaped by the whim of his media empire.

The dynasty started with a small Adelaide tabloid Rupert inherited from his father Keith, and we watched the stable grow and evolve into a platform that could ultimately elect governments, change public opinion and move legislation here.

When Murdoch outgrew Australia and moved on to Britain in 1969, it was the narrative arc we expected.

When he went on to wield his unparalleled power in the USA to elect Trump in 2016 we expected that one also – though Fox actually being held to account for broadcasting falsities about that election in 2023 was perhaps unexpected.

A momentary setback for the Murdochs, we thought, as we read about the case in one of the 142 mastheads News Corp runs here.

What Australians know is that this kind of media power doesn’t die: it simply changes course, flows around obstacles in the landscape and then comes together again, finding new ground to saturate.

If you want to stop this kind of power it’ll require more than just a bifurcation.

That is what has happened on Friday: a bifurcation.

Rupert Murdoch has stepped down as chairman of Fox and News Corp after a 70-year career and handed the reins to his son Lachlan.

It will not result in a loss of power for the family, nor even the end of its talent for fundamentally shifting world politics to the right and anointing chosen governments: Lachlan is, by all accounts, just as conservative and driven as his father.

According to Chris Mitchell, editor in chief of The Australian from 2002-2015, his views can be even more right wing than his father’s.

Lachlan was already co-chair of News Corp before Rupert’s announcement. So, this is more of the same at best.

There are significant problems ahead for Lachlan however, and taken together they could stem that power in future.

Primary among them is the impending $US2.7billion lawsuit Fox is facing from Smartmatic in the US; it is an order of magnitude larger than the case they just settled with Dominion and a second, larger loss would be financially crippling.

The other effect of this very public battle over truth and falsity playing out in the US – and News Corp’s questionable relationship with truth on their flagship cable TV channel – is that it undermines the “most trusted” brand Fox has been trying to reinvent itself behind.

As if to point the finger at other outlets on Friday, knowing the company is soon to be under the global spotlight again for broadcasting lies, Murdoch said in his exit memo that “most of the media peddles political narratives rather than reporting the truth”.

This sentence describes exactly what the Murdochs have been doing with Fox and with News Corp.

The second problem Lachlan faces is the long slow decline of newspaper revenues – particularly digital advertising and subscription revenues.

This has been going on for some time, since the rise of the web really, but accelerated markedly with the arrival of social media and then again during COVID.

News Corp reported a 75 per cent drop in full-year profit this year.

Although the company has been investing in a “digital transformation” for decades and has radically cut costs over the last few years (including shedding journalists at some outlets and completely shuttering others), the long-term problem remains.

News Corp content must now compete for attention on our devices with TikTok and Tubi and eBay, and nobody wants to buy time with newspapers anymore – least of all advertisers.

Why purchase a digital subscription to News Corp when you can just watch ABC iView or read stuff for free on The Guardian app?

News Corp thought it might partly address this “competing content” problem by buying its own streaming services, Binge and Kayo, and they have indeed done well, but cannot unseat incumbent industry giants such as Netflix or born-digital services such as YouTube.

Times have changed, and News Corp is still partly a creature from an earlier, pre-digital era.

Lachlan will need to find some new and drastic solutions to the decline in advertising and subscription revenues.

Powerful media dynasties of the type we produce in Australia simply do not end when presented with a single shock or obstacle: they find a way around it and continue on their way.

The same is true for the transfer of power from father to son at News Corp today.

The real threat to the company is not succession or even a single court case – but rather the slow but unmistakeable change in the audience itself.

/University Public Release. View in full here.