Peter Cole on The Press

Murdoch, the last of the great media moguls. Oh yeah? What price predictions from the man who took a dozen years to wake up to the internet?

Rupert Murdoch has become reflective of late. Three score and 15 years seem to have brought out both his contemplative and his visionary sides. In his speech at the Stationers' Hall in London last week he talked about the digital future while at the same time striking a fin de siècle note. "Power is moving away from the old elite in our industry," he said, "the editors, the chief executives and, let's face it, the proprietors."

Jeremy Tunstall, a media sociologist, has described four types of newspaper ownership: the Press Lord, the Crown Prince, the Media Mogul and the Chief Executive. The Press Lord (or Baron) was dominant from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960s: Lords Northcliffe (Mail), Beaverbrook (Express), Camrose (Telegraph). They were rich, powerful and autocratic. Their papers were playthings as well as businesses, earning them political and social influence. They felt no need to justify or defend their power.

The Crown Princes were their sons and inheritors, sometimes having less vision, business acumen or authority. The Northcliffe (Rothermere) dynasty continues at the Mail, but the Beaverbrook (Aitken) and Camrose (Kemsley) families have given way to the Media Moguls.

These have four characteristics, according to Tunstall: they own, they operate, they are entrepreneurs and they have an eccentric management style. They have included Roy Thomson, Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black and, most dominantly, Rupert Murdoch. They have been followed by Sir Anthony O'Reilly the Barclay brothers, Richard Desmond, men associated with ownership of their companies.

The Chief Executives, who run rather than own media conglomerates, include Sly Bailey (Trinity Mirror) and Dame Marjorie Scardino (Financial Times). They are appointed by and can be removed by their boards. They have conventional business imperatives - such as efficiency, profits and a strong share price.

Rupert Murdoch, not just in Britain but globally, not just in print but with television, is signalling, or at least ruminating about, the next era. After decades of dominating the media landscape, after creating his own Crown Princes and Princess but not promising or as yet delivering the throne, he teases them and us with the idea that this era of Media Moguls ends with him.

In one sense, it does - the post-Murdoch media world will be different. But that difference is emerging already, while Murdoch is still around. He admits he was slow to wake up to the digital world. He paid it little heed until a year ago, when his Washington speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors marked his awakening.

What is fascinating is how far his influence spreads among those who revere him, fear him or despise him. The significance of the internet and other digital forms for traditional media was clear to some 12 to 15 years ago. But in this country only the two big media organisations without shareholders, the BBC and The Guardian, did much about it. As ever, the bean counters said, "Where's the revenue stream?" and nobody could give a convincing answer.

So when the old man became the most famous late adopter, those who didn't quite find time for the conversation suddenly talked of nothing else. Everybody is engaged, from the Lancashire Evening Post's digital newsroom project to The Daily Telegraph's podcast; from The Guardian's "Comment is Free" blog forum to the exploitation of the latest Murdoch acquisition, MySpace.com, by The Times' and The Sun.

There is a lot of confusion out there, a lot of sucking it and seeing. But right across the industry heads have come out of the sand, and Murdoch is largely responsible for that. It was a while coming, but at 75 he has demonstrated that he can spot a new thing (or, at least the time to climb on board), see the digital potential and, most importantly, the positive relationship between it and traditional media. The link is good journalism. If we take him at his word we can drink to that.

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