NEW YORK (Reuters) - Seizing The Wall Street Journal for his News Corp NWSa.N media empire would be an audacious master stroke for Rupert Murdoch -- unless he tops it by trying to buy The New York Times Co (NYT.N).
This is what Vanity Fair columnist and newly minted Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff thinks the 77-year-old media mogul will do, regardless of sound business strategy, investors and U.S. government rules about who can own what.
“He really contemplates how he can get The New York Times,” said Wolff, author of “The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch.”
The book, which Random House’s Doubleday unit will release on December 2, features Murdoch playing with the idea of how he would run the Times Co.
“I’ve watched him go through the numbers, plot out a Times merger with the Journal’s backroom operations and fantasize about the staff quitting en masse,” Wolff wrote.
Murdoch has said that he wants to use the Journal to compete with the Times. In an excerpt from the book published in Vanity Fair earlier this year, Wolff raised the idea of buying the paper instead.
“Certainly as the (Times) share price falls and pressure on the company becomes greater, there’s a certain softness which he can begin to mold,” Wolff told Reuters.
Murdoch took a similar tack when he offered a 65 percent premium to Dow Jones shareholders in 2007, prying it from the Bancroft family. He doubts that Murdoch approached the Times, but Murdoch would try to beat other offers that arise first.
Several obstacles block the path. The Ochs-Sulzberger family controls the Times Co and despite a recent slashing of the dividend and a tanking stock price, wants the paper to stay independent. Also, U.S. government rules also could prevent him from buying another big paper in the same market where he already owns broadcasting and other print properties.
He also could face the wrath of investors already upset over the $5.6 billion purchase of Dow Jones, a deal that would have been much cheaper had he waited a few months more.
News Corp stock has dropped 60 percent since then and Murdoch has warned investors that advertising declines would result in lower operating income in the 2009 fiscal year.
Wolff said Murdoch cares little about what investors think. Rather, he acts on impulse or in the case of the MySpace online social network, “somebody convinced him there was value here and... someone else wanted it, in this case Viacom VIAb.N.”
“This is a man who we think is a control freak and a visionary and who has had this very clear plan of dominance, and I find that not to be true at all,” Wolff said.
Reporting by Robert MacMillan; Editing by Bernard Orr