Mr. Murdoch Goes to War

Rupert Murdoch wants his Wall Street Journal to displace The New York Times as the world’s paper of record. His ambitions could be good news for the newspaper industry— or another nail in the coffin of serious journalism.
rupert murdoch wall street journal
DAY OF INFAMY: Rupert Murdoch delivers his first address to the Wall Street Journal newsroom
(Photo credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Rupert Murdoch entered the ninth-floor newsroom in Lower Manhattan with a bouncy, rolling gait that seemed much too sprightly, given the seismic waves of dread it spread in all directions. It was late in the afternoon of December 13, 2007, a date that will live in infamy for a certain generation of American newsmen. Lawyers were still putting the final touches on the $5 billion deal that would make Dow Jones & Company and its crown jewel, The Wall Street Journal, the newest subsidiaries of Murdoch’s improbably vast News Corp-oration. The global-media buccaneer, the rapacious philistine from Down Under, had come to personally stake his claim to “the daily diary of the American dream.”

Also see: From the archives:

The Age of Murdoch (September 2003)
Many see him as a power-mad, rapacious right-wing vulgarian. What really drives him, though, is not ideology but a cool concern for the bottom line—and the belief that the media should be treated like any other business, not as a semi-sacred public trust. Rupert Murdoch has seen the future, and it is him. By James Fallows

Video: "Rupert Murdoch: The Last Hope for Journalism?"
James Bennet and Mark Bowden discuss Murdoch's reign at the Journal and reflect on the past and future of the newspaper business.

No one could find a podium, so four green-and-white boxes of printer paper were pushed together as a platform, and Murdoch stepped up with a microphone in hand to address his mostly appalled new employees. With his thin hair dyed rusty brown and brushed straight back off the wide dome of his forehead, and modish wire-framed glasses over small, heavy-lidded eyes, his face was all too familiar, its deeply creased cheeks sagging in a fine cascade of syncline folds to the crisp knot of his blue silk tie.

“Naturally, this is a day of great excitement for us. Maybe it’s more a day of nervousness for a lot of you,” he said, a slight Aussie flavor turning the last word to yew-ah. No doubt Murdoch felt the tremors of dread. No doubt he appreciated them; they were a form of homage.

But nervousness was way too cute. The mood was grim. A great frigate of high-minded journalism had just struck its colors to the Tabloid Pirate. The once-mighty, staid, studiously gray, independent Wall Street Journal was now a first cousin to Fox (“Fair and Balanced”) News, Bart Simpson, the London daily Sun’s Page Three titty displays, and the deliberately outrageous New York Post. (Within months, the two U.S. newspapers would be hawked together on the streets of New York as a $1 package deal.)

“But I hope it’s also a day of excitement, because it is a new day in the history of this company,” Murdoch said, stressing the words new day. “We’ve come here to expand it, to develop it, and, where possible, to improve all of its products.”

Newspapers are in a sad way in America. Readership continues to fall. Advertisers are deserting them for newer forms of media. Revenues are plummeting, as the costs of printing and distribution mount catastrophically. Faced with declining profit margins, investors are fleeing. Knight Ridder, once the largest newpaper chain in America, has gone out of business. Stalwart family owners such as Dow Jones’s Bancrofts are selling out. Reporters and editors are being bought out or laid off in droves, and not just at small regional papers. The once-fat Los Angeles Times has been dismantling itself. The New York Times and The Washington Post are trimming their staffs. In the eyes of many media experts, print journalism, that stubborn 15th-century technology, appears at long last to be on its deathbed.

Except that Murdoch is investing in it. We’ve come here to expand, he said. He has announced his intention for the remade Journal not just to supplant The New York Times as the nation’s preeminent daily newspaper but to become the first truly global daily. This would be music to the ears of any newsroom, so hope mingled with the professional dread in Murdoch’s audience that afternoon. He may be awful, but he is rich and awful, smart and awful, powerful and awful, and while he may well be crazy to still believe in the future of print, he is determined and crazy. Murdoch might be the last person The Journal would have chosen as its savior, but newspapers may well be down to last hopes.

What does he see that others do not? What is his vision for one of America’s most venerated dailies? Can he really grow TheJournal in such a hostile economic climate? And if he succeeds, might The Wall Street Journal as we know it, and as millions of readers have loved it, cease to exist?

Murdoch has little patience for ceremony, and his words that takeover day in December were brief and to the point—pledges to make a “great papah” a “bettah papah,” assurances that “we do know and understand the tremendous values of Dow Jones and particularly of TheWall Street Journal, and the very high bar-ah that you’ve set yourselves,” and optimistic talk about how the global economy, and the tremendous “desiah for information” that comes with it, offers TheJournal the chance to become “the preeminent source of financial information and comment in the world.”

After some polite applause, Murdoch introduced Robert Thomson, a lanky, stooped, Ichabod Crane–like figure in a black suit and skinny black tie, who, as Murdoch put it, “will be the publisher, with the editors all reporting to him.” Murdoch explained that Thomson, a veteran of the rival Financial Times who had been editing TheTimes of London for him for almost six years, would have no “business responsibilities” as publisher, which meant that he was the paper’s de facto new editor.

Thus crumbled, with Murdoch’s first words as the new owner, the hopeful wall that had been erected with fanfare while the sale was going through to shield the paper’s editorial content from the flamboyant magnate’s meddling.

The paper’s former top editor, Marcus Brauchli, was just a few paces away, his arms folded across his chest—a slight, amiable, balding man who had emerged victorious from a tumultuous management struggle the previous year, only to find himself presiding over someone else’s newspaper. His rise from the ranks of reporter had been so rapid that his nickname was “The Rocket.” Feelings about Brauchli (pronounced Brock-li) contained the usual mix of admiration and envy that adheres to anyone who achieves remarkable success in a large organization, but overnight all jealousy had been replaced with hope. The weight of TheJournal’s proud traditions were draped across his slender shoulders. He was the newsroom’s champion, whose proven shrewdness and ambition would now be deployed in their defense. And he seemed ideally suited to the task, given that he had been good friends with Thomson for years. If anyone could skillfully navigate the treacherous waters ahead, it was Brauchli.

He would resign in four months.

Rupert Murdoch is, by most accounts, a delightful man. Born to wealth that he has manifestly multiplied, he is a man who lives a globe-trotting lifestyle, a man who need never carry his own bags or stand in line at a security checkpoint at an airport, a man who moves through a string of fabulous residences; it would be easy to assume that he is a coddled, petulant creature of privilege. Yet Murdoch often flies commercial, carries his own bags, prefers a regular hotel room to a suite, uses taxis, and shops everywhere for bargains. Bruce Dover, in his book, China Adventures, tells the story of how Murdoch, on the night of the formal handover of power in Hong Kong to the Chinese government, found himself by a series of accidents alone on foot in Kowloon, lost, trying to find his way back to his hotel with neither money nor cell phone. He wandered for hours, melting in stifling humidity, unable to make himself understood, and when he did finally find his hotel, he was barred from entering by guards who were unimpressed with his protestations in English and his lack of an invitation or an ID. Dover, one of his executives, was at long last summoned to the outer gate to investigate the stubborn imprecations of a damp, walletless old man. Dover found Murdoch actually cheerful, or at least “in surprisingly good humor.”

“What an adventure!” the tycoon said.

Like the great Whitman, Murdoch is large, dizzyingly so, with enterprises that span the globe and broaden the frontiers of information and entertainment technology, and like Whitman, he contains striking contradictions. He is a bare-knuckled, union-crushing capitalist who has had more success than anyone wooing the ruling Communists in China. He is a Thatcherite conservative whose New York tabloid has endorsed Barack Obama. He is a 77-year-old who lives the life of a young man, with a Chinese-born wife (his third) who is almost four decades his junior and two small daughters to complement his four middle-aged children. He is a global-media baron, a titan in his field, whose empire now includes 20th Century Fox, Fox TV, Fox News, Fox Business Network, HarperCollins, The Times and Sunday Times of London, The Sun, the New York Post, The Weekly Standard, Dow Jones, BSkyB television, National Geographic Channel, MySpace, etc., etc. But Murdoch still sees himself as a stubborn outsider, a freethinking cultural marauder come to rattle the halls of power—a kind of Aussie Bart Simpson writ large. And nothing gets his juices flowing faster than a chance to disturb any establishment, be it Britain’s labor unions (he broke their stranglehold on London newspapers), the BBC (which he has successfully challenged with BSkyB), the dominant American TV networks (which he has taken on with his Fox channels), or CNN (which his Fox News Channel surpassed as the leading all-news cable channel, after CNN’s Ted Turner famously promised to squish Murdoch “like a bug”).

Murdoch is given credit for great business acumen, but he is less a pioneer and visionary than a wealthy and aggressive collector. He has vast resources and is constantly adding and subtracting companies to and from his empire. He identifies potential markets, and then, like a rich art buyer writing big checks for the work of artists who have already achieved critical recognition, he buys into companies that have demonstrated promise in reaching those markets. He doesn’t have a record of consistent success; some of his biggest newspapers lose money, including the New York Post and The Times of London. What he has are the resources to absorb failure.

When it comes to running a newspaper, this combination of traits—buccaneering and collecting—makes Murdoch a throwback to the great journalism pirates, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who reigned during the days when most major cities had multiple dailies duking it out on street corners for readers. Back then, the name of the game was street sales, and the way to outsell the other rags was to have something hot that they did not. Reporters vied to get out in front of a story, to be one step ahead of everyone else. The more sensational the scoop, the more copies you sold. Reporters weren’t so much writers as hustlers and con men. The very idea of serious social reform—or, perish the thought, literature!—was laughable. Reporting was about scooping the competition. Stories were to be written clearly and concisely. Sentences were short and simple, language plain. Editors prized the breaking front-page story that could be told without “jumping”—without forcing the reader to turn to an inside page.

This is how Murdoch understands journalism—as content, a word he uses all the time, rather than as a form of literature or public service, and as a commodity whose value largely derives from its instant retail malleability. A short, crisp scoop that dramatically advances a major developing story—Obama’s poll numbers down! Britney back in rehab! Steinbrenner to fire another manager!—can be neatly packaged for a dizzying variety of media: print, radio, TV, the Internet, or even cell-phone screens. It doesn’t matter much to a fully integrated media conglomerate like News Corporation how its customers choose to access this content, as long as the transaction pays. Business and financial news is ideally suited to this kind of cross-seeding, since markets are now global and customers are tuned in all day, every day. One of the first strong messages Journal reporters and editors received from their new owners was that Murdoch wants scoops. He wants his reporters out in front of every competitor on the planet.

This means that, at a time when every big newspaper is tinkering with futuristic business models, Murdoch is doing so with both feet planted firmly in the past. His strategy for success in 2008 is to behave as though the year is 1908. So while his competitors retrench, Murdoch is going to war—by challenging The New York Times, in particular, to an old-fashioned newspaper battle. Except this time the stakes aren’t nickels in Times Square, but dominance in America, and the world.

It’s a war he could well lose. For print journalists, the good news about Murdoch is that he believes the old Gutenberg technology still has legs, and that he is willing to back that belief with capital. But any 21st-century newspaper war is going to be fought in large part on the Web, and when it comes to new media, Murdoch’s record is mixed at best. From the 1990s on, he has repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to establish a foothold on the Internet. There was Delphi, an early player in the online industry, which he abandoned a few years after purchasing it. There was PointCast, a venture featuring something called “push” technology that Murdoch flirted with before it sank as quickly as it surfaced. Today he has staked his claim with MySpace, and he is actively seeking to broaden that beachhead by shopping around for a proven performer he can buy. He has flirted both with keeping The Journal’s content behind a firewall (where it remains at the moment) and with offering it for free, which indicates that he hasn’t cracked the central problem of Internet publication: How do you make it pay?

It’s also a war he could abandon if it doesn’t seem to be going his way. As his Internet ventures suggest, Murdoch has a history of moving aggressively into new territory, only to retreat just as quickly. He has built his media empire not only by identifying proven properties and investing in them, but also by ruthlessly discarding those that fail to measure up to his expectations. He can be a fickle patron, because his enthusiasm for a project is grounded not in a deeply held belief or commitment, but in the bottom line. And some speculate that he may ultimately value Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal less for their own sakes than for what their brand names bring to his other properties, particularly his just-launched Fox Business Network, although Dow Jones has a contract with CNBC that will not expire until 2012.

For his new employees in that ninth-floor newsroom, though, the real danger might be that he could win the war—because Murdoch’s definition of success could mean that to save The Journal, he has to kill the newspaper as they have known it.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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