For almost everyone, the outcome regarding News Corp.'s ( NWS - Get Report) bid for Dow Jones ( DJ) is all but certain: Rupert Murdoch will get his plunder, the Journal will be used as leverage to launch his business-news cable channel, and the paper's stories will grow shorter. But that's not all. At best, those stories will be squelched just enough to further Murdoch's own business interests; at worst, they'll become corporate PR under a sterling media brand. Murdoch, after all, has been said to regard journalists as furniture: If they clash with the interior décor, they can always be replaced. So, Murdoch tends to be painted as something of a villain in all this. However, to News Corp. shareholders -- who have pushed the stock up slightly since the merger was announced -- he may be something of a hero, one who is laboring to drive up their investment's value. I don't really buy either of these views. Murdoch isn't an agent for evil or good, he's a very efficient agent for change. The media industry is rapidly transforming, and Murdoch is one of the few in the business to have sense enough to clean up from it. Every week seems to bring some new data confirming that print is losing money to the Internet. There are two basic reasons why: Online is faster than print in breaking and analyzing news. And it's a lot cheaper to advertise there.
Many observers, figuring that losing money equals death, reason that so-called old media is dying. Others predict that the boundaries separating print, online and TV are melting into a murky stew. Again, I don't think either opinion is quite right. Media boundaries aren't going away, they're being redrawn. Things are unsettled, the dust is flying, and no one can say with any certainty where the boundaries will fall. The best you can do is know that, for the time being, you just don't know. Murdoch knows this. A few other barons who hail from traditional media do as well: Brian Roberts of Comcast ( CMCSA) is one. Terry Semel is another -- well, he was until Google ( GOOG - Get Report) rewrote the playbook in a short span of time, and Yahoo! ( YHOO) failed to keep up. Then there's ... OK, let's just say there are at least two. When News Corp. bought MySpace, some people predicted Murdoch would gum it up. But instead he let it do its thing, which is all he could have done. No one -- not MySpace's founders nor any of its users -- ever understood where MySpace was going. Yet MySpace has thrived inside News Corp. Internet giants like Google have grown quickly in large part because they know you can't herd consumers or visitors to your site into the corrals you've designed. They let them ramble about free-range, creating their content, finding what they seek and recommending it in turn to others.
Murdoch has always had a deep instinct for pandering. He saw in cable television the potential for showmanship, and exploited it. He saw in network television an appetite for the unconventional, and exploited that. With papers like the New York Post, he saw that the future of newspapers lay in its past -- in the roughhousing, take-no-prisoners spirit of The Front Page -- and modernized the tabloid. So it makes sense that Murdoch would take to the Internet, where the aggregate of consumers is voting for the rules. And it makes sense he wants to take Dow Jones -- its news service, its financial-news site and its flagship paper, the Journal -- toss it into the media salad that is News Corp., and see what happens. And the upholstered journalists? No one can say for sure what kind of media will work best several years on. All we can see is what isn't working now. Business journalists have written for years about disruptive technologies. Now, finally, we know what it really means.