28.06.12 | Philip Jones
The decision by News Corporation to restructure has been read as evidence that Rupert Murdoch intends to detoxify the News Corp brand by hiving off its newspapers, and focusing on its untarnished broadcast divisions.
Taking the lead from a report in the News Corp-owned Wall Street Journal, the suggestion (now confirmed) is that book publisher HarperCollins will go with the newspaper arm, creating a company made up of what one analyst described as “ever-weakening businesses”. Anyone who thought HarperCollins was sheltered from the impact of “hack-gate” should think again: as a standalone unit within a smaller group, these businesses will face greater investor scrutiny and increased pressure to perform at a time when they need to be focused on their changing markets.
The phone-hacking scandal will ensure that much of the conversation around the restructure will be focused on Murdoch’s favoured newspapers, but any split from the parent group would also be a significant moment for the book publishing business. Few may now recall but Murdoch’s takeover of British independent publisher Collins in 1989 was mired in controversy. At the time News International half-owned, with Collins, the US publisher Harper & Row, and the takeover gave Murdoch control of both. The directors of Collins feared for their independence, while authors fretted over connections with the Sun. The Bookseller questioned, somewhat colourfully, whether this was “far-sighted creativity, or just another ego trip?”
Twenty-three years on we may be nearing an answer. Murdoch’s vision for a diverse media group made up of different content companies focused on delivering across multiple platforms was an idea many others pursued—but whether any of these groups ever really delivered on the promised synergies is moot. Of course it is ironic that just as it looks to reinvent a structure around “publishing”, the connections between these “print” businesses have rarely looked more tenuous, but this may not matter.
As Harper has demonstrated with apps such as Wonders of the Universe, the future for book publishers is using their content skills across different media, and with partners based on need not corporate dictat. Digital is the driver, but the “far-sighted creativity” now comes from within, it need not be imposed from on high.