Third time lucky as News Corp delivers a low drama leadership change

Tim BurrowesPeter Tonagh and Michael Miller are the low risk, logical choice to lead News Corp, writes Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.

The surprising thing about today’s changes in management at News Corp is how unsurprising it all was.

Contrast that with the drama of the Kim Williams firing in 2013 and the end-of-an-era feel to John Hartigan’s exit in 2011.





Instead, the dual appointment of Peter Tonagh and Michael Miller is almost an anti-climax. Much of the speculation has been around which of the two of them would succeed Julian Clarke. Instead, they’re both taking the helm.

Nobody is surprised. We sent out a breaking news alert email this morning and it had one of our lowest ever open rates.

Tonagh, previously COO, will become CEO and Miller will return to the fold from APN News & Media as executive chairman.





It feels like a return to the plan which was disrupted when Kim Williams took his brief to shake up the business a little too seriously and lost the internal political battles. It led to Julian Clarke coming out of retirement to run News Corp in what amounted to a rescue mission.

At the time Peter Tonagh had been assumed by many to be the natural successor, but that plan was temporarily disrupted when the majority News Corp owned realestate.com.au operator REA Group lost Greg Ellis to an overseas job in late 2013.

Just a few months after moving to News Corp after a long stint at Foxtel, Tonagh temporarily took the helm at REA Group, until Tracey Fellows joined in late 2014. Tonagh then returned to his interrupted chief operating officer at News Corp.

Meanwhile, Miller had been on his own jaunt away from the mothership, taking the helm of APN News & Media in 2013 after a lengthy career with News Corp culminating in managing the company’s NSW operations.

But the mood music was always that he was welcome to return – even more so after News Corp took a 14.9% stake in APN in March this year.

The fact that APN’s share price has performed well under Miller – it nearly tripled from the point he took charge – boosts his credibility, particularly given that he had mainly old media assets to work with.

Kiis fmIt also makes sense that Miller’s new role seems to include managing joint ventures such as Foxtel (with Telstra) and REA. A star performer during Miller’s time at APN was the Australian Radio Network – jointly owned with Clear Channel until he bought out the US based company’s stake early last year. ARN’s fortunes changed when it launched Kiis and snatched Kyle & Jackie O away from 2DayFM. It was a risk and a significant investment, but it paid off.



Not surprising given the Kiis success, that ARN’s boss Ciaran Davis will be rewarded with the top job at APN News & Media. The market has arguably been a tad harsh to Davis – with shares in APN dropping by about 6% on opening today (although they’ve recovered a bit since).

Miller also gained exposure to the outdoor advertising industry via APN’s ongoing joint venture with Clear Channel, Adshel, and APN Outdoor, before selling it in late 2013.

Where I am slightly more sceptical is around the talk of Miller using Australia as a base to boost News Corp’s Asian interests. As is well told in Bruce Dover’s book – Rupert’s Adventures In China: How Murdoch lost a fortune and found a wife – News Corp has struggled in Asia. It feels like it will be tough going.

The appointment of Miller might also signal a change in tone for News Corp. Despite spending most of his career inside the competitive News Corp culture, he doesn’t exude the “us versus the rest of the world” attitude that many from the organisation do.

The duo of Tonagh and Miller also have quite complementary experience.

Tonagh’s from a pay TV background, which fits well with Foxtel. Miller is an ink-in-the-veins executive who understands how to run News Corp’s local, metro and national newspaper portfolio. It’s a list that of course includes the likes of The Australian, Sydney’s Telegraph, Melbourne’s Herald Sun, Brisbane’s Courier Mail and of course the NewsLocal titles.

And it does the organisation no harm to have an executive (apart from the Nova-owning Lachlan Murdoch) in Miller who also understands the dynamics of the radio industry.

Unlike the previous dramas, this transition looks like it will be smooth for News Corp – Clarke won’t officially retire again until the end of the year; Miller won’t leave APN until September (given the News Corp stake, it will be intriguing to see if they hold him to a non-compete period); Tonagh’s already in Holt Street’s Mahogany row.

Which isn’t to say Miller and Tonagh’s lives will be in any way easy. The pressures facing newspapers will only get worse in the coming years (last week’s closure of mX is one more pointer to that), while the rise of streaming services are going to be an increasing threat for Foxtel’s business model.

But choppy as the waters will be, it feels like this time News Corp will be a steady ship.

  • Tim Burrowes is Mumbrella’s content director

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