It's a good time to be in TV. But what about newspapers? It's complicated.
FORTUNE — James Murdoch, son of mogul Rupert Murdoch and deputy chief operating officer of the newly formed 21st Century Fox, is not afraid of his mistakes. Speaking at a dinner on the first night of this year’s Brainstorm Tech conference, Murdoch seemed, if anything, more afraid of not taking enough missteps. “If you become paralyzed by your failures, you won’t grow,” Murdoch said looking out into the audience, light reflecting off his glasses.
Murdoch was quick to tick off wince-worthy examples: The Daily, an ill-fated, tablet-only publication which burned through mounds of cash before being unceremoniously shuttered last year; MySpace, a social media pioneer that News Corp. NWS bought for $580 million in 2005 and sold for a paltry $35 million six years later; and, of course, the phone hacking scandal that not only led to the demise of the News of the World but also set the stage for the splicing of the Murdochs’ lucrative television and film properties from less-exciting, old-media holdings.
Murdoch, 40, painted the split — News Corp will consist of newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, while 21st Century Fox will include the film and TV businesses — as a rational move, rather than one forced by events.
Murdoch pointed to the period in News Corp’s history between 1985 and 2007 when the company grew to include far-flung assets such as newspapers, television networks, movie studios, and satellite pay-TV. “In 2010, to gather all those leaders, 38 different operating CEOs, the interests of each one wasn’t necessarily best served. It was [difficult],” Murdoch said. “Each business would make much more sense separately,” he added.
Murdoch is a figure of intense interest in the media business for many reasons, not least of which is that he has, at times, been seen as paying for the sins of the father. He was widely believed to be the heir-apparent to his father’s global empire — impressive for a dropout who once dabbled unsuccessfully in the record business. But that future took a detour following revelations that — while Murdoch was head of News Corp. Europe and Asia — the group’s British Sunday tabloid eavesdropped illegally on politicians, celebrities, veterans, and a young murder victim.
In February last year, Murdoch resigned as executive chairman of the British newspaper division; in April he stepped down as chairman of News Corp.’s U.K.-based broadcasting arm BSkyB, of which News Corp. owns a 40% stake. Monday night, Murdoch said 21st Century had no plans to seek to buy out the rest of the company, as it once had. Nor does the firm have any plans to drop its stake. Murdoch said the Sky businesses in Germany and Italy are doing well, however.
On the future of journalism, Murdoch sounded an optimistic-if-vague note. “Factionalism around the press is dangerous,” he warned before going on to say, “This split is going to be one of the most refreshing and empowering things” for traditional media. He was talking about TimeWarner’s cleaving Time Inc, which publishes Fortune, as well. Murdoch also seemed to suggest that big journalism brands would go on to have a lucrative future.
The young executive, who appeared relaxed wearing jeans, pointing out his wife in the audience, and laughing during the interview with Fortune‘s Adam Lashinsky, was more immediately enthusiastic on the topic of TV. “The television business is going through a creative renaissance,” he said. “It’s a great period for TV.” As the Internet levels barriers to creating new programing, Murdoch said networks and content creators will no longer be able to pump out “middle of the road [shows].”
One area of intense interest: sports. 21st Century’s push into new sports ventures will be emblematic of the company’s new approach, Murdoch promised. That would be, in his words, to “never overestimate the customer’s satisfaction with the status quo.”