This is a story of three octogenarians. It is 60 years since the death, aged 88, of (William) Randolph Hearst, now the world's second most famous newspaperman. The fearsome publisher-cum-politician, who is debited with creating "yellow journalism", was lampooned in Orson Welles' 1941 movie, Citizen Kane. Hearst certainly knew how to use his newspapers: he supported arch-democrat Franklin Roosevelt one year and the Republican Herbert Hoover the next.
Before the 1939-45 war, Hearst was even suspected of supporting Hitler but his newspapers were probably the first anywhere to go big on the seeping, unimaginable rumours of Holocaust in the early 1940s. This huge man with a tiny voice - a warmonger in Cuba and Mexico but a pacifist in Europe - was the world's first media mogul, building a chain of newspapers and magazines that stretched from San Francisco to London.
If Hearst was the first of his kind, his 21st century counterpart may be the last. Rupert Murdoch, lest we forget, is the man who created the very idea of an international business spanning all media and all countries. But, while these two media pioneers shared the common language of popular journalism and political activism, Randolph Hearst was a two-term US congressman who tried to become President. Murdoch has never liked politicians enough to want to be one.
They each built a mighty media empire from a single, inherited small-city newspaper, (Murdoch in Adelaide and Hearst in San Francisco). But that is where the similarities end.
The company Randolph Hearst founded 125 years ago is now a rare example of an optimistic traditional media group. Hearst Corporation is a $7bn revenue, still privately-owned business spanning television, newspapers, magazines and digital media. It has grown in a steep straight line since William Randolph Hearst died in 1951. Part of the secret is a family trust trust through which the company is controlled by a 13-member Board, eight of whom are non-family. And Hearst's will includes a clause that allows the trustees to disinherit any heir who contests the trust structure.
But the longterm trust ownership is only part of the Hearst Corporation secret. The real key to its success over the past 33 years is a man hardly known outside America and who, unlike either Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch, has few critics and no visible enemies.
That man is Frank Bennack and, you guessed it, he will be 80 next year. He has been a Hearst faithful virtually his whole working life, since joining his San Antonio, Texas local paper as a classified ads salesman in 1950.
He was Hearst Corp President and CEO for a soaring 23 years (1979-2002), during which the burgeoning group increased revenues seven-fold, profits 13 times, and made transformational deals, especially in TV. An estimated 85% of the current Hearst profits are from businesses added during that golden era. Bennack jokes that he "flunked retirement"and, one long-knives night in 2008, he moved back to replace his amiable successor Vic Ganzi. This past 12 months has seen two striking examples of the modest and still-ambitious Bennack's moves to chart a new course for Hearst.
Recently, there was his $919m acquisition of the Hachette worldwide magazine business (outside France). This deal made Hearst the world's largest women's magazine publisher.
Before that, there is Bennack's latest move in what may be his succession strategy. Amid un-Hearst-like intrigue, CEO Victor Ganzi had stepped down over "irreconcilable differences" and longtime magazines boss Cathie Black quit. The departures happened either side of Bennack's swoop to sign David Carey as Hearst Magazines president from bitter rivals Conde Nast.
Hearst's Hachette deal has certainly loaded it up with magazines. It was the kind of deeply unfashionable deal resonant of Hearst's snaffling of newspapers just as everyone else seemed to be bailing out. But Hearst has an almost religious conviction about the longevity of hard copy magazines magazines. Bennack jests that when people finally land on Mars, they will find a magazine and a cockroach. He is only half joking.
Indeed, some of their best results have been in their world-best international licensing network of US-originated brands. Cosmopolitan is Hearst's flag-waving example of a magazine with real international clout: no fewer than 64 editions published in 35 languages and distributed in more than 100 countries. Hachette brings Elle, the world's most successful fashion magazine, with 42 editions in 60 countries. The whole deal gives Hearst a portfolio of more than 300 magazines in over 80 countries; and makes its international portfolio a match for the US one.
David Carey waxes lyrical about the fast-developing countries where (it is true) magazines are still growing. Thudding, heavy copies of Elle from China or Harpers Bazaar from Russia make the point. Many wunderkind countries are salivating over their Western-style magazines crammed with Gucci and Rolex ads in a rewind from 1980s Europe. But digital migration in China, for example, will take hold quickly enough. And move at warp speed.
The Hearst corporate composure is at least partly due to the breadth of its earnings and success. Its annual profit is believed to be some $1.5bn, with perhaps two-thirds coming from investments in cable and satellite TV. The star performer is ESPN, the sports TV network controlled and managed by Disney but 20% owned by Hearst. Bennack bought the stake for $170m in 1990; it may now be worth at least $6bn.
Frank Bennack's position is one that Rupert Murdoch might just envy. For all the showy Tweets of the past few weeks, we know that Murdoch has no more command of today's technology than any other 80-year-old. But the capital-destruction of News Corp investments in My Space, The Daily, and Beyond Oblivion, might just show the 'new media' dangers of a hands-on-everything mogul who is err a bit older. The collegiate leader Frank Bennack runs no such risks.