Lachlan Murdoch, Spiky Punk Heir Right For Post?

In February of 1999, when News Corp. Rupert Murdoch put his cherub-cheeked 27-year-old son Lachlan in charge of the corporation’s U.S. publishing interests, the New York Post was troubled.

“If you did the research which we did four years ago, the No. 1 complaint was ink coming off on your hands,” Mr. Murdoch said early on a recent morning at his company’s Sixth Avenue headquarters. His hands were clean. “We’re now the best-printed paper in the city.”

Check ! The second-biggest complaint was more difficult to handle.

“It was conservative-too conservative,” he said.

No, this was not a revolution in the making in the Murdoch family. Asked about his own politics, Mr. Murdoch said he brushed off all labels, that he wouldn’t be “put into a box.”

“I don’t think I’m liberal, right?” Mr. Murdoch said. “I think my politics are on the conservative side, I have to say. But I don’t define myself. I think if people were to analyze my views, they’d say I was conservative. I try not to define myself one way or another.”

Lachlan is not a rebellious son, even if that’s what he looks like. But neither is he the textbook version of a dynastic heir. “He’s young,” said Jane Friedman, chief executive of the HarperCollins division of News Corp., who reports to him. “And it’s great. I feel our company is young. You need to have that freshness. He has a clean eye, a cool eye. He understands contemporary culture, and that’s a lot of what we do.”

In 1998, Lachlan married Wonderbra model Sarah O’Hare; they now share a Soho loft in a building full of Hollywood and media elite. But Lachlan keeps his feet on the ground. He takes the F or V train each morning to his midtown offices near Rockefeller Center. His hair-a collection of long spikes shooting off in all directions-is a testament to the miracle of modern salon product. He is preternaturally tan, and buff in the well-fed style of an old-time baseball player.

At 8 a.m., he removed his suit jacket to reveal an already wrinkled white shirt, rolled up at the sleeves to show off a circlet of barbed shapes tattooed in a band around his left forearm. Lachlan Murdoch’s rebellions are all like that: They are sweet, timbral touches that finally mark him out as the son of his father.

“[Lachlan's] a lot like [Rupert],” said Mitch Stern, chairman of Fox Television Stations and Twentieth Television. “He’s engaging and curious. Intelligent. And, I’d say-and this is where they stand out from the rest of the industry-a gentleman with a high sense of integrity. Pretty good drinker; good taste in wine. The kind of person you welcome into a meeting. He comes in with his sleeves rolled up. And you’re into it.”

In many ways, Lachlan Murdoch-who recently contributed $2,000 to the campaign to re-elect George W. Bush-reminds one of a line from the 2000 Presidential election: He’s the media mogul you’d rather have a beer with than Al Gore.

And it’s exactly that kind of familiar touch that has allowed Lachlan Murdoch to toe the precarious line between sanding down the sharp edges of the New York Post and abandoning the news sensibility that make the Post a Murdoch product.

“The truth is, there used to be this knee-jerk reaction at the Post , with national political stories on page 1,” he said. “Even over a good local story. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Leading with local stories doesn’t completely erase the Post ‘s political positioning, of course.

“People still know our editorial position, right?” Mr. Murdoch said. “They understand that editorial position, but it’s less in their face. They understand it’s there, but they enjoy reading the paper so much it doesn’t bother them. That element doesn’t come up anymore in our research.”

At the Post , it’s all a part of his image as a stand-up guy-someone who hasn’t lost himself in the serious business of taking on his father’s mantle. It’s no wonder he bristles at the idea that the Post is his”proving ground.”

“I’ve spent 10 years running newspapers in Australia,” the young Murdoch said. “I see the Post as obviously a very important moment in the history of American newspapers. But it’s not a proving ground at all.”

But if turning the traditionally money-losing tabloid into a winner is a public test, a ceremonial replay of his father’s efforts to turn around The Times of London (which he has said remains the proudest achievement of his career), it hasn’t been a bad one.

Though he acknowledged the paper is still losing money-he wouldn’t say whether Ken Auletta pegged the number correctly at $40 million in his forthcoming book, Backstory: Inside the Business of News -he thinks it’s on track to break even in two years. In the meantime, the Post has advanced on its cross-town rival, the Daily News , reducing its edge in circulation from 260,512 to 76,698. Mr. Murdoch has overseen six consecutive quarters of 10 percent circulation growth, and raised overall circulation from 443,951 in September 2000 to 652,426. The New York Post has never ticked in better time with the heartbeat of the city. And it looks great-full of crisp color and punchy layouts that somehow sharpen rather than soften the paper’s edges.

But if Rupert always thought of his collection of newspapers in the U.S., Britain and Australia as the soul of his vast media empire, it’s not his richest tributary.

Though print operations here and abroad, Lachlan said, will make close to $1 billion for News Corp., it is not the future of the company. That would be television-satellite television. The kind of stuff his younger brother James, a former Lampoon editor who dropped out of Harvard to start a record label before coming back into the fold, did with Star, the Asian arm of News Corp., and will do for BSkyB, the Murdochs’ British satellite property.

Inevitably, the newspapers will become the sentimental core of Mr. Murdoch’s inheritance, and the main business of being a Murdoch will no longer be rolled out on the presses overnight.

“They’re very good at taking the profits from a mature business to build new businesses,” said Paul Kim, a media analyst at Tradition Asiel Securities. “They’re one of the few companies that has the vision and ability to get out of their core competency. More mature companies and less visionary companies would probably plow more into their core competencies. News Corp. can take these major risks in satellite, and it’ll do a lot of service in the long run.”

Lachlan has a hand in some of these growth areas. In February 2002, Mr. Murdoch took charge of News Corp.’s 35 domestic television stations.

As it stands, Mr. Murdoch controls nine duopolies-markets (including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston) where one company owns two television stations.

But he remains loyal to his newspaper roots. Newspapers, after all, are where it all began. Transforming his inheritance, the now-defunct Adelaide News , in the 1960’s, Rupert Murdoch grew his business-first into other papers, then into television, movies and satellite. Lachlan Murdoch, who was born in London and matriculated at Manhattan’s Trinity School before completing his education at Princeton University, spent his teen years sweeping the presses in the company’s Australian papers. He would learn the business from the ground up.

In August 1994, at the tender age of 22, he was named general manager of the company’s Queensland Newspapers, and 10 months later became publisher of The Australian .

“Newspapers are in our genes,” Mr. Murdoch said over an egg-white omelet and bacon. “And we view the company as a creative company, and newspapers are the most creative medium because every day you start from scratch. You have a blank reel of paper at 10 o’clock at night, and the next morning you have a 98-page or a 140-page newspaper. It’s the most creative of all the media businesses. They’re in our genes and we love them.

“I still think newspapers are a growth business,” Mr. Murdoch said. “Not boom, certainly. But our newspapers can still grow significantly by taking market share. The industry may not be a growth industry, but if you run the business well within the industry, you can grow within the industry.”

It has often been thought that should the elder Murdoch step down soon, president and C.O.O. Peter Chernin would take charge until the day that Lachlan Murdoch was more than ready to mind the whole store. Mr. Murdoch said that little has changed about his father, even as he begins fatherhood all over again with his third wife, Wendi Deng. He said the elder Murdoch still puts in 18 hours a day, still travels constantly and is “getting younger, not older.”

That means News Corp. will continue to run the Murdoch way for now and into the future: unrelenting, unapologetic, using blood lines to chart the company’s narrative. When Mr. Murdoch’s younger brother (and Harvard dropout) James was plucked to head BSkyB, it riled investors. But, as Mr. Kim said, “If one invests in News Corp., one knows what they’re getting. It’s a family-run business.”

Mr. Murdoch said he felt his brother would do a “fantastic job” in his new post.

“I think the board of BSkyB and the independent directors and the search committee for the new executive had great candidates, and I think James outshone them all.”

Asked what his brother’s new role meant for his succession, Mr. Murdoch said: “It’s one of those things where you read in a magazine all this stuff about sibling rivalry, but I don’t know another brother-and this goes for all my siblings, my sisters as well-that get along as well as my brother and my sisters. We all support each other and are happy for each other’s success.”

Bloody battles have begun in happier families than that. But right now, Mr. Murdoch’s got a war on his hands.

He recalled a hotel retreat in Princeton with about 30 company executives-most of whom, he said, “weren’t here anymore”-soon after his arrival to speak about the new printing plant: the facility that took the Post from its black-and-white blurry tatters to something as pretty as a soft summer day (assuming that day included run-ins with Paris Hilton and Robert Durst).

He called on his old sweeping job where, he says, he learned right there at the plant how to mix colors the right way. He said he asked the group what kind of training would be done, what kind of quality control. The answer both times came back: “None.”

“Finally I said, ‘What do we expect from this?'” Mr. Murdoch recalled. “And the answer was, ‘We’d like to print as least as good as the Daily News .’ And that’s when I hit the roof.”

Post managing editor Colin Myler described Mr. Murdoch’s approach as “very hands-on.”

“He’s clear about what he wants and is passionate about he wants,” Mr. Myler said. “Like any publisher, he expects results. And when he doesn’t get results, he decides whether the person doing the job can actually do it, or if there are better people for the job.

It is Lachlan’s paper. Former editor and publisher Ken Chandler is all but a blurry afterthought. Bloody Friday-when Mr. Murdoch’s man, editor in chief Col Allan, canned three top editors and two columnists-has passed into tabloid lore. While Mr. Murdoch stressed the paper’s ties to the “local community,” there’s no question the Post has lived up to all those great fears. It has become more Australian-and for Mr. Murdoch, that’s a good thing.

“If you go back, it was mostly our competitors saying, ‘Oh, the Australians,’ looking down,” Mr. Murdoch said as he showed off a stack of some of the company’s native holdings. “I’m not sure what that meant, being ‘too Australian.’ It was somehow seen as being some sort of put-down. The truth is, what we brought to the paper was being competitive-breaking stories, being out ahead of people-because people are trying to copy us now. The Sun , when they launched, they tried to get us into a verbal joust over being 25 cents. Now they’re 25 cents.

“Obviously, the Daily News is scampering to try and copy the Post ,” Mr. Murdoch added. He pulled out a recent Daily News montage showing off all of the Mickey Mantle memorabilia recently put up for sale by the late slugger’s family. “Almost every day. You only have to look at this spread right here, which is so reflective. It’s not done very well, but it’s a good example of what they’re trying to take from us. If anything, in terms of our competition, we’ve woken everyone up.”

Sure. But once they’re woken up, they still put on their slippers and go out to pick up the Daily News on their doorsteps, or down at the newsstand.

“If I can have an early birthday wish,” Mr. Murdoch said, “or an early Christmas wish, it’s for circulation to match its influence and position within New York City. The truth is, if you look at the demographics, it’s pretty much there. The demographics are so much better than the Daily News , it’s not even funny. Even though you don’t have the circulation yet of the Daily News , you have a much, much wider influence than they’re going to have.”

But Mr. Murdoch conceded: “I’d still like to have those figures on the board.”

After five years and 441 reviews, William (Biff) Grimes is stepping down as the “Dining Out” critic for The New York Times .

“As a critic, you’ve only got so many meals in you,” said Mr. Grimes, who will remain at the paper. “When I took this job, I felt that five years would be the limit-at least for me. I think there’s a natural life span for a critic, and it feels like a good time for me. Plus there are a lot of exciting changes going on at the paper, and I wouldn’t mind riding a little wave.”

Mr. Grimes, whose last column will appear Dec. 31, said he and Times culture czar Adam Moss were finalizing a new gig that was not “going to be food-related.”

“It’s something we’re both excited by,” Mr. Grimes said. “We’ll firm it up in the near future. It’s a whole new role. I don’t want it to be grandiose: It’s something that’ll sound like a lot of fun, and can only be less work.”