Digital Media’s Odd Couple: Murdoch and Jobs


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I'm in the process of reading Walter Isaacson's excellent biography of the contradictory and unpredictable man that was Steve Jobs. Isaacson wrote that in 2010, wracked with cancer, Jobs was on a mission to accomplish as much as he could before he died-and to that end he turned his keen attention to journalism.

He hoped to do for journalism what he had done for music a decade earlier by providing the means for media companies to make money by connecting to the Apple ecosystem. At the time, he met with several publishing luminaries, but it was Rupert Murdoch, the mercurial head of News Corp., whom Jobs seemed to really connect with. Together, they turned into the Felix and Oscar of the digital media mogul set.

Perhaps in spite of their generational, political, and overall differences, the two shared some essential qualities. They were both volatile and exceptionally smart individuals with clear visions about their respective industries. But whatever the reason for their friendship, Isaacson reported they clicked, and Murdoch spent quite a bit of time with Jobs at his house (even though Jobs' liberal wife, Laurene, couldn't stand the man because of his ultra right-wing FOX News Channel).

As a result of these friendly conversations, Murdoch released an iPad-only publication called The Daily, a rather middle-of-the-road online news magazine that Isaacson described as more USA TODAY than tabloid. As vanilla as it was-it apparently hasn't done that well either-the fact that Murdoch was so willing to devote resources to the project showed how much he respected Jobs and what he was doing at Apple. That was a big deal coming from an old-school media man.

For Jobs, the mission was about saving quality journalism. He felt (and rightly so, in my opinion) that bloggers could only do so much when it came to delivering quality news. Bloggers most definitely have a role in the news ecosystem, and the democratization of journalism using Web 2.0 tools in the newsgathering process has been mostly positive. Yet, while blogging filled in some gaps, it could never do what a well-funded newsroom filled with professional journalists and bureaus around the world could. As advertising revenues have shrunk over the past decade and newspapers have continued to walk the line between maintaining their expensive print operations while developing a web and digital strategy, quality journalism has often been a victim-and this is something Jobs was focusing on in 2010, just a year before he succumbed to cancer.

One of Jobs' pet projects was The New York Times, which he hoped to return to its former glory via the iPad. But where Jobs had convinced stubborn record company executives that they would benefit from joining the iTunes Store in 2003, he had more trouble persuading the newspaper media magnates of the same notion. The sticking point was the iTunes subscription model. Jobs wanted to control the market place, and The New York Times (and other publishers) were adamant about maintaining control of their subscribers. Jobs wanted everything to go through iTunes, and he wouldn't allow any app into the Apple App Store that tried to circumvent these rules.

When The Times eventually agreed to the conditions, a year after Jobs proposed a new approach, it charged far more than Jobs had recommended, and as of the writing of the book, it hadn't done all that well.

When Jobs died last October, his mission to save journalism was far from complete. His friendship with Murdoch did not necessarily bear fruit. At least it could not be measured in typical Apple success metrics or anything close to the kind of success iTunes has given to music.

Nevertheless, that Murdoch and Jobs were able to get together at all, never mind find common ground and even build a friendship, is fairly remarkable. We will never know what would have happened had Jobs lived longer, but it's a fair bet that he would have continued to push to save journalism from itself, just as he did with the music, book, and movie industries over the years.

For now, we can only hope that whatever mark he left will be enough to push online journalism ever forward, because from now on, it's on its own, for better or worse.