Rupert Murdoch was a disruptor before Silicon Valley made it a thing.
From Sydney to London, New York, and Los Angeles, he upended the news business, almost always for the worse. In television, he pulled off what many thought impossible: muscling in on the ABC-CBS-NBC broadcast network triopoly.
In Boston, he’ll also be remembered as the man who brought us Wingo, a bingo-like game with cash prizes, and “The Simpsons” while giving the Herald American newspaper a new lease on life and making Channel 25 more than just another sleepy UHF television station.
Murdoch, 92, said on Thursday that he would more or less retire from the media empire he has built over the course of seven decades. His oldest son, Lachlan, 52, will take over as chairman of Fox Corp. and News Corp. in a previously orchestrated succession where the real-life Logan Roy will become chairman emeritus at both companies.
Before he launched Fox News Channel, before he bought The Wall Street Journal, before he introduced NFL fans to Cleatus the Robot, Murdoch barged into Boston to take over the ailing Herald American from Hearst Corp.
He sealed the deal at the end of 1982, and brought in a crew of Australian and British editors to implement the same tabloid strategy that he employed after buying The New York Post six years earlier. The paper had changed to the smaller tabloid layout a year earlier, but hadn’t fully adopted the sensational tabloid style. “The Herald American alienated former readers . . . by, for example, running weighty political analysis side by side with reports of steamy sex crimes,” Time magazine wrote.
“The first thing he did was empty out half the newsroom,” said Tom Mashberg, who was there in the early Murdoch days. “The second thing he did was turn us into a blaring tabloid. The third thing he did was introduce Wingo. It was a wild ride.”
The liberal-leaning Globe found itself fighting off a smaller, but feisty, conservative-leaning rival, which Murdoch renamed The Boston Herald. Boston benefited from being a true two-newspaper town.
The Herald hired a cohort of local reporters, including Frank Phillips, Brian Mooney, Shelley Murphy, and Andrea Estes, who proved so good that the Globe eventually lured them away.
Murdoch upped his presence in Boston with the 1986 purchase of WXNE-TV (Channel 25), which was rechristened WFXT.
“He greatly improved Channel 25′s standing in the lineup of local TV stations,” said Ed Siegel, a former Globe television reporter and critic.
Murdoch owned Channel 25 until 1990 when the FCC ordered that he divest one of his two media holdings in Boston. He held onto the Herald, selling the television station to the Boston Celtics. But in 1994 he sold the Herald to a trusted lieutenant, publisher Patrick Purcell, and reacquired Channel 25, which he owned until a 2014 station swap with Cox.
“Murdoch’s local TV legacy is kind of understated,” Siegel said. “The big change local viewers would have noticed was much more aggressive entertainment than they were getting from the national feed from Fox. That bolstered the news division as well because having a strong lead-in was a big deal in television.”
These days he wields influence in Boston — and nationwide — through the Journal and Fox News.
“Although I think Murdoch has had an indescribably harmful effect on our political culture, mainly through the weaponized propaganda he has indulged at Fox News, he deserves praise on a few fronts,” said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern who writes the Media Nation blog. “One is for maintaining The Wall Street Journal as one of our great national newspapers. Another is for saving the Boston Herald.”
Frank Phillips, one of the news-breaking Herald reporters the Globe later recruited, remembers telling one of his editors that he had a good scoop on a yet-to-be-released state budget from the Dukakis administration.
“He said, ‘No one cares about the budget. Give me something to stir up the animals.’ ”
Phillips said he sometimes cringed at those tabloid sensibilities, but it was still hard to leave the paper for the Globe despite the higher pay and prestige.
“I learned a lot from the Herald,” he said. “I loved it.”