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The Raging Septuagenarian

The inflammatory rhetoric generated a flurry of press and laid the foundation for the announcement that News Corp. would begin charging for its online content. Last year, he hired Jonathan Miller, the former CEO of AOL, who, along with Murdoch’s son James, is leading a team of senior executives to develop an online pay model while negotiating an accord with Google. The plan, which is still evolving, envisions bundling all of News Corp.’s newspaper content and partnering with other publishers to deliver it to mobile devices and the coming crop of tablets. James, according to executives involved in the discussions, believes readers will pay for bundled content like viewers pay for cable television. “It’s very much like a cable thing,” one News Corp. executive explained. “If 5 million people around the world are willing to pay, that changes the economics of the industry.”

Meanwhile, Miller has also been in talks with Microsoft about possibly pulling all of News Corp.’s content from Google and signing an exclusive distribution deal with Bing. And if talks with Google break down, Murdoch is readying a lawsuit against them. “He’s pretty tightly wound up over Google and has been ready to sue them,” says a senior media executive who recently conferred with Murdoch. “He doesn’t trust them at all.”

Murdoch’s defiance invited speculation that he had lost it. And continued trouble at his MySpace division furthers this view. “Digital is out of his comfort zone,” a former senior MySpace executive says. “It’s much more the Wild West. He gets the raw-competition part of it, but he’s never been in a place where the business model isn’t clear. The destruction is just happening so fast.”

“Hats off to Murdoch. He’s serious about print journalism. He’s the last guy standing who believes in it.” —Former Times Editor Joe Lelyveld

After Murdoch concluded his remarks on this month’s earnings call, the line was opened to journalists’ questions. The first came from a writer from the Guardian, the liberal British paper that is a vocal proponent of giving away its content on the web. “I wonder what you think of people who think that newspapers are sleepwalking into oblivion if they feel that they can buck an irreversible trend of content becoming free?”

“I think that sounds like b.s. to me,” Murdoch said.

“So you think that free-content strategy is not going to work?”

The operator called on the next reporter. This discussion was over.

As Murdoch shores up his barricades and directs his raiding parties, his ambitious adult children wait, often restively, for their chance to lead. Rupert, intentionally or not, hasn’t always made it easy for them. His daughter Prudence has never played a substantial role in the family business. In 2000, Elisabeth, unhappy at BSkyB, the British pay-television service in which Murdoch holds a 35 percent stake, left the company and branched out on her own. (Her firm, Shine, is a tremendously successful television production house.) Lachlan walked away from the throne in 2005, resigning as deputy COO of News Corp. after clashing with Roger Ailes and then–News Corp. president Peter Chernin, feeling that his father wouldn’t back him up.

That leaves James as heir apparent. James became aware of the pressures of being a Murdoch from a young age and developed a suspicion of the press. As a 15-year-old intern at the Sydney Mirror, one of Murdoch’s papers, he was photographed dozing on a couch during a press conference. The rival Sydney Morning Herald trumpeted the photo on its front page the following day. Born in London and raised in New York, James had a peripatetic childhood. He attended Horace Mann, an intellectual hothouse filled with children of New York’s elite, yet he never made much of his family’s famous name, preferring an outsider, artist persona. James was into music and wore long black wool trench coats and Chuck Taylors. He bleached his hair blond. “He was that type in the John Hughes movie that was the really cool, aloof guy,” a schoolmate recalls.

James studied film at Harvard and briefly roomed with Jesse Angelo, who would go on to become managing editor of the New York Post. But James dropped out shortly before graduating and, along with a pair of Horace Mann classmates, launched Rawkus, a hip-hop label that put out groundbreaking acts like Mos Def and Talib Kweli. For a moment, it looked like James would pursue a career outside the family empire.

But Rupert lured him back. In 1996, he bought Rawkus and installed James to run News Corp.’s fledgling dot-com ventures. James became something of an evangelist for the Internet. He inhabited the image of a new-media intellectual, favoring tailored black suits and thick-framed glasses. An interviewer for The Industry Standard in a 1999 profile noted that a copy Don DeLillo’s Underworld and the latest issue of Granta were in plain view in James’s Chelsea offices. But when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, News Corp. gutted its Internet division. The leftover furniture was transferred to its book publisher HarperCollins.