Read any good stories in the New York Herald lately? How about the New York Tribune? Or even the New York Herald Tribune?
Unless you’re reading microfilm copies in some dusty back corner of a New York library, the answer presumably is no.
In a related vein, what do you think the foreign policy of the newest Roman Caesar will be when it comes to dealing with Islamic terrorism? And what about John McCain’s chances of being Queen Elizabeth’s new Prime Minister?
The answer to these questions is of course obvious. The Herald folded in 1924, merging with its rival the Tribune. The combined Herald Tribune ceased publication in 1966 (except for a European version, the International Herald Tribune now owned by the New York Times). There is no foreign policy towards Islamic terrorism from a Roman Caesar because the Roman Empire no longer exists. First emerging somewhere between 44 and 27 B.C. (depending on whether you begin with Julius Caesar or his immediate successors), it divided into Western and Eastern sections with the Western Empire falling apart during the fifth and sixth centuries. The Eastern Empire fell prey to the Ottomans in the 1400s, and with that the last of the Roman Empire disappeared forever. Whatever John McCain’s political future holds, he is a candidate not for Prime Minister of Great Britain but President of the United States because the policies of Queen Elizabeth’s famous ancestor King George III lost the British colonies in America for good back in 1781.
The fate of these once famous and powerful institutions should serve as cautionary tales to the Bancroft family, the owners of the Wall Street Journal. The Bancrofts are now struggling quite publicly among themselves over an attractive offer for their Dow Jones family empire from media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his powerful News Corporation.
As one of millions of Journal> readers who loves the paper (and as a writer who has been published on its pages), this is a struggle worth watching.
Once upon a time, New York’s Herald and Tribune, the Roman Empire, the British colonies in America and, yes, even John McCain’s inevitability as the Republican presidential nominee in 2008 were taken for granted. If you were alive in the 1860s the Tribune, owned by the eccentric Horace Greeley, circulated throughout the United States, its publisher so powerful and influential he later became a presidential candidate. In the 1880s the Herald, born in 1835, was the largest circulation newspaper in New York City, flamboyantly financing Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition into Africa to search for Dr. David Livingstone. For centuries the Roman Empire reigned over the majority of earth as it was then known, leaders ruling a domain that at its peak extended from Britain to North Africa to the Middle East and the tip of Asia. The English set foot in the wilds of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. From those moments until British General Lord Cornwallis allegedly heard the tune “The World Turned Upside Down” played at the 1781 Yorktown, Virginia surrender of his army to George Washington, the idea of America as just one more English colony in a British empire where the sun never set was part of the bedrock of Britain’s view of itself. And only seven months ago the Republican Establishment was swarming the McCain campaign, convinced that the Bush era was giving way at last to the inevitability of the Age of McCain.
The shock of recognition for human beings alive in all of these periods of history is that, simply put, nothing has to last forever, and nothing is inevitable. Nothing. Not the New York Herald or Tribune, not the Roman Empire or the idea of America as a British colony or the nomination of John McCain. Or even the control of the Wall Street Journal by the Bancroft family.
All of these moments in history remind us that change is inevitable — one of the most obvious yet frequently ignored lessons of life. Change arrives twenty-four hours a day of every day of life on this planet. No creation of a human being or any collection of human beings is guaranteed to be here tomorrow or even an hour from now — unless those in a position of leadership are alert to the changes around them and are actively and intelligently getting out in front of those changes.
Rupert Murdoch’s rise from publisher of a small paper in Adelaide, Australia, to the powerful mogul whose media empire bestrides the globe as a communications colossus was made possible in part because Murdoch had a crystal clear vision of where he was headed, had the guts to continually embrace change and risk, and worked tirelessly to understand the nitty-gritty of his business. The story is told in one Murdoch biography (Murdoch by William Shawcross) that shortly after purchasing London’s Sun he decided to have it printed as a tabloid. Told by his printers that the broadsheet presses he owned could not print a tabloid, Murdoch informed his employees that their printing presses were originally supplied with bars designed to fold pages to tabloid size. The head printer, Shawcross reports, denied this. Whereupon the publisher removed his suit coat and jumped up onto the press. “In a box at the top of the machine,” writes Shawcross, Murdoch “found the bar in question wrapped in sacking and covered in ink and grime. The printers were impressed.”
Murdoch, in other words, knew his business in detail. In all the volumes of ink detailing the angst of the Bancroft family as they struggle with the idea of selling what they understandably consider to be the family crown jewel, a reader never gets the sense that there is a Bancroft family member who understands about the bar that folds broadsheet pages to tabloid size. Behind arguments that the family has left the running of its paper to others is a doubtless unintended yet implicit intimation that were Murdoch and his offer to disappear, eventually the Wall Street Journal itself could disappear. How, after all, did it get to the point where Murdoch or anyone else could feel free to make a serious offer for it in the first place? Most assuredly no one is trying to buy the News Corporation out from under the Murdoch family. It appears to an outsider that the Journal has arrived at this moment because there is no Bancroft family member with the drive, the vision, and the knowledge of the nitty-gritty to make the changes this famous American institution needs to survive in the 21st century of the New Media. Rather, the working assumption seems to be that of a passive Herald or Tribune publisher or a complacent Caesar of the Roman Empire or an arrogant King George III or a cocky John McCain adviser. The Wall Street Journal will live forever. It is inevitable, for no other reason than that it “always” has.
This simply isn’t so.
The underlying assumption of some sort of earthly eternity for man-made creations of any kind is not just wrong, it is dangerous to the health and wellbeing of whatever creation is under discussion. Any person responsible for a treasured or valuable family inheritance can sympathize with the Bancrofts and their struggle. But it seems that there is no one in their midst who understands what Rupert Murdoch grasped at a very early age back in Adelaide. Life is short, and change is life itself. If you fail to aggressively anticipate change, take risks and keep moving forward — resting on your laurels or, worse, the laurels of your ancestors — pretty soon you won’t have a newspaper at all. Or an empire or a colony or even a presidential nomination.
The world can indeed be turned upside down. Whatever the outcome of the struggle inside the Bancroft family, the world of the Wall Street Journal is apparently in the middle of that process right now, doubtless generating millions of good wishes from its faithful readers for the continued health and vibrant future of a genuine American icon.
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