The Soul of a Media Company

Recent events have branded—or reverse-branded—News Corporation. Its reputation, according to the company’s just-filed annual report, could be damaged dramatically enough to impair its business.

    Curiously, it takes a lot—i.e., a scandal of international proportions—to give an information conglomerate an identity (even a negative one).

All of the great media combines—companies that otherwise are selling point of view, personality, story; companies, the best of them anyway, that began as purposeful and unique voices—assiduously debranded themselves over the last few decades. Time Warner, Viacom, NBCUniversal, even News Corp., came to stand for nothing. (Only Disney, arguably the most successful media company, maintains a distinct identity.)

    Ad agencies followed suit. Anodyne holding companies fostered anodyne networks. It was the hundredth anniversary of Bill Bernbach’s birthday earlier this month, but his agency, forsaking one of the most famous names in advertising history, Doyle Dane Bernbach, is now, merely: DDB.

   Curiously this has happened against the backdrop of information brands thriving most of all when they demonstrate an explicit identity: Fox News, Huffington Post, The Daily Show, TMZ.

    That was part of the debranding theory. Media megacompanies housed so many varied and discordant brands that they needed a neutral umbrella over them—one that said (not least of all to Wall Street), we’re really only about efficient management.

    But it may be that this very lack of identity, this effort to hide in plain sight, is what has gotten them into trouble—not just, as in News Corp.’s case, legal trouble, but market trouble too.

    That is, standing for nothing means it is easy to be negatively defined.

    Time Warner, more than a decade later, still has not quite recovered from its association with AOL.

    CNN dies a little more each day in comparison to Fox News’ moxie.

    Ad agencies which have turned themselves into characterless superstructures have lost the wherewithal to charge clients premium prices for their special magic and brilliance.

    As it happens, most of News Corp.’s value is in businesses that have nothing to do with hacking or even much involvement with people named Murdoch. And yet the company, in the mind of the public, politicians, and many of its employees, is now the embodiment of bad behavior, if not evil. It cannot mount a credible defense that it stands for something else besides hacking when, in fact, it stands for nothing else.

    And then there are Google and Facebook and Apple—all of which have become media companies of choice not least of all because they have a coherent story to tell and worldview for users to inhabit that captures the imagination of ever-growing audiences.

    But, of course, back to News Corp. It has sometimes felt that Murdoch has maintained a rump organization of blackguards within his empire precisely as a counterpoint to the sanitized company News Corp. has become. Indeed, it likewise has felt that his more modern managers have built a faceless corporate shell precisely to hide the real identity of News Corp. But Rupert, turning from the modern world, or rebelling against it, has found solace (as well as profit) among his tabloid reprobates. (Among the reasons they hacked phones, I believe, was to entertain their boss with the tales they collected.) For Rupert, they made media fun. They gave the place soul and personality.

    They are crooks. But, in some sort of defense, they aren’t boring.

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images