From left to right: Rupert Murdoch aged 5 years old with his father Keith Murdoch, about the time he was working his first newspapers in Australia and finally how he looks like today.
To understand Rupert Murdoch the media mogul and what makes him who he is today it is important to go back to the 19th century and to a time when he was not even born. We need to understand the life and times of one Alfred Hamsworth billed to have been the greatest publisher who ever lived.
Who was Hamsworth and what is his link to Murdoch?
Hamsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) was the major inspiration in the life of Rupert’s father Keith Murdoch. When the older Murdoch was working on behalf of the Aussie government in London he spent a lot of time with Murdoch and learned a lot about the newspaper business which he later went back home to apply. And as he did so this knowledge and information was passed on to the young Murdoch and is very evident in the younger Murdoch’s media career as we shall see later in this series.
Hamsworth’s most powerful newspaper principal was simplify, clarify, explain. Born in 1865, he came on the scene when newspapers were more like text books on medicine. Articles were written for detail and one had to painstakingly read through thousands of words to understand the content. With the strong traditions and class system in Britain it would have been an insult to suggest to any editor at the time to make his newspaper or articles more readable for the uncouth masses. Hamsworth saw only the money that could be made from reaching the masses.
Answers to correspondence (later shortened to Answers). The format was simple. Each article started with a question and was followed by the answer written in a simple easy to grasp way that had yet to be seen at the time. Sometimes the questions were picked from topical issues and at other times they were just based on the other powerful emotion successful publications exploit in prospective readers, namely curiosity. “Can a clergyman marry himself?” “Do Dogs commit murder?” are two examples that were big sellers at the time. This small pamphlet was a sensational success even as the then mainstream press ignored and laughed at it. Circulation steadily rose to 200,000 copies weekly.
But Hamsworth real money-making genius emerged from the fact that he realized that the material he produced in Answers could easily be recycled again and again by simple changing the headline and re-writing the articles from a different angle but based on the same researched material. This could be done almost endlessly and so he launched numerous other cheap papers like Comic Cuts, Illustrated Chips, Forget me Not, Home Chat and so on. By 1894 the total circulation of all his papers was 2 million copies a week and Hamsworth was rapidly becoming a very wealthy man. And that was the year that his inevitable shift away from the ‘gutter press’ to the mainstream media happen.
A newspaper called Evenings News was in serious financial trouble and on the verge of shutting down. Hamsworth purchased it and using the same tactics that had built his gutter press empire to such phenomenal success he turned it around instantly into a great success. In 1896 he founded the Daily Mail which sold 400,000 copies on it’s first day of publication.
Hamsworth’s guiding principle was simple but revolutionary in his time. He put it thus: “For a newspaper to pay it must deal with what interests the mass of people, give the public what they want.”
If you were to pick up any copy of Rupert Murdoch’s most financially successful newspaper over the years, The Sun you would see this simple principal in every article, every headline and every photograph including the notorious page 3 naked model. Simply put The Sun is successful because it gives the people what they want.
Hamsworth is the foundation of Rupert Murdoch’s phenomenal media empire which was built from scratch. Murdoch started with one very small afternoon newspaper in Australia which he inherited from his father and as we shall see throughout this series, that is the simple principle he copied and put to work.
Admittedly there was also a lot of financial smarts which can still be applied to any business today and we shall examine those as well. Indeed what Murdoch did can still be done today albeit on the information super highway. Because even with all the technology available now the basic fact that information is the most powerful and lucrative commodity on earth is still very much true.
Read more on Hamsworth
Read part 2