What Even Rupert Murdoch Can't Control

In War at The Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle to Control an American Business Empire, Sarah Ellison has written a vivid and, by consensus, definitive account of how Rupert Murdoch came to buy the Dow Jones Company, controlled for more than 100 years by the Bancroft family, for a price nearly double the prevailing market value of the enterprise at the time of his deal in 2007—which also happened to be the start of the worst period in the newspaper business, well, ever. Within a year, Murdoch wrote down the $5.6 billion purchase price by half, but nonetheless he and his intensely committed team re-made The Wall Street Journal into an aggressive, general interest daily and digital platform with a local section for New York and a quarterly magazine designed to feature expensive advertising but virtually no content. In the heavy downdraft of newspaper circulation, the Journal has held its own.

By now, the Murdoch acquisition model is clear to anyone who follows the media landscape. He is a force of extraordinary will. Among his successes through News Corporation are the Fox channels, 20th Century Fox (think Avatar), and HarperCollins, his book publishing company, which is doing as well as any in the industry 15 years after he tried to sell it and couldn't. So what fascinated me about the Ellison book was less the predictable rhythms of the Murdoch takeover than the portrait of the Bancroft family, the sprawling group of cousins whose ownership of Dow Jones gave the "professionals" latitude to produce a great newspaper but an increasingly less formidable purveyor of business information compared to its competitors, Bloomberg and Thomson-Reuters. By the time Murdoch bought Dow Jones, it was clear that the Bancroft's stalwart (but passive) support of their enterprise left the company vulnerable to exactly what Murdoch did—overpay the shareholders, especially the family, and hurl this old-fashioned value driven business into the maelstrom of today's media mayhem.

Mark Bowden: Mr. Murdoch Goes to War
James Fallows: On Rupert Murdoch's 'Times' Paywall
Derek Thompson: What Is Rupert Murdoch Doing to Journalism?

As with all Murdoch's news ventures, The Wall Street Journal is increasingly a reflection of the proprietor's instincts and ideological bias; whatever his employees may contend, Murdoch's influence is their ultimate guiding spirit. Just last week, News Corporation contributed $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, making it the GOP's largest corporate donor.

Ellison has dug deeply into the dynamic of the Bancrofts. What emerges is symbolic of a broader phenomenon in today's transformation of media companies into corporate entities. After generations of family oversight, these enterprises are now being overwhelmed by the competitiveness of the digital age. The loss of family control over the generations is not really new. The Luces (Time, Inc.), the Paleys (CBS), and the Sarnoffs (NBC) long ago left the companies their patriarchs founded. But in recent years, virtually all the media families have grappled with the complexities of maintaining value and values in the changing business environment. A short list of these families whose fortunes were made in the print businesses makes the point:

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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