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.

Murdoch is a panderer. Like most businessmen, he wants to figure out what his customers want and then deliver it. The salvation of The Wall Street Journal may well be that its highly educated readership wants precisely what the paper has been offering for more than a half century. But at the very least, it’s clear that Murdoch intends to give that tradition a good working over.

In interviews before and after he bought Dow Jones, Murdoch complained about the length of Journal articles, and said he was not enamored of its a-heds and leders. Robert Thomson reiterated those points in his initial conference calls and meetings with the newspaper’s far-flung staff, insisting that the fierce competition for these page-one slots would no longer be the only mark of excellence at the paper. He has echoed his boss’s call for shorter stories and a more aggressively competitive approach, even as he has reassured staffers that he and Murdoch both respect and admire The Journal’s traditions—positions that appear contradictory.

“Rupert clearly likes the Wall Street Journal brand,” Block said. “But he doesn’t like the things that made the brand what it was. It is clear that the long-form journalism that made so many of us want to join the newspaper just doesn’t matter that much to Rupert.”

What matters is winning the war—against The New York Times, and against everyone else. In his first months as the new boss, Thomson held several meetings with his top underlings during which he opened that day’s issue of the Financial Times and circled the news items that TheJournal had missed. (One editor noted, “You don’t have to do something like that very often for it to make a big impression.”) At a session in Washington, Thomson irritated the bureau by repeatedly comparing TheJournal unfavorably with the FT, which his staffers regard as a far less impressive product—and which is, in fact, the very model of a business and financial newspaper that scorns the ambitious, in-depth story in favor of the scoop.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with a newspaper filled with actual news, but the best papers do not define what is news exactly the same way every other outlet does. This is particularly true of TheJournal, which institutionalized zigging when everyone else zagged. Reporters at TheJournal have always produced news stories off their beats, but they also pursued stories that other outlets did not, and the way to get ahead was to score with a leder or an a-hed on page one. Journal reporters tend to be a little bit more like M.B.A.s than scribes at other newspapers, and amid the competition to see who could score more of the ambitious and quirky page-one stories, some reporters actually kept spreadsheets of their performance. But this wasn’t just a meaningless in-house contest; it was part of a long-running journalistic tour de force.

“Regular readers of The Journal were able to get a real sense of what was happening in the business world by reading those in-depth stories,” said Gene Roberts, the much-heralded retired editor and reporter who once helmed The Philadelphia Inquirer. “They often gave you a sense of sea changes in society and the economy. It was why The Journal always had a strong readership not just in the big cities, but in fly-over country. They were consistently well reported, well written, well edited, and they were trustworthy and fascinating. They offered the kind of deep information that smart investors could make use of. It was a formula that worked for a long time, and it didn’t stop working.”

Under Thomson, though, the leder is shrinking and clearly endangered. The a-hed seems to sink lower and lower on the front page every day, like a setting sun.

“But it’s still there,” said Kate Kelly, who covers investment banking for the paper and who turned down a job offer from The New York Times last year just as Murdoch purchased TheJournal. She received an encouraging phone call from the new owner after she decided to stay, something she doubts would have happened under Dow Jones ownership.

And she’s right that the long narrative story has so far survived. Yaroslav Trofimov’s April yarn about dolphin teeth being used as currency in the Solomon Islands was in the finest tradition of the eccentric a-hed, and reporter Kevin Helliker’s February saga of Toby Phalen Young, a middle-aged, respected Missouri wife and mother who fell in love with a convicted murderer 20 years her junior and helped him escape from prison, started in a box above the fold on page one and jumped to two full inside pages. The reporter said, “I encountered nothing but enthusiasm.”

But the enthusiasm here was for a story, no matter how legitimate and well done, that contained undeniably sensational elements—a forbidden love affair, a prison escape, a respected community member’s bizarre fall from grace. It had “feature film” written all over it; indeed, the movie rights have been sold. There isn’t a newspaper in the country that wouldn’t have wanted the story. But it’s hardly typical of the more obscure subject matter that traditionally defined TheJournal’s most prized offerings. And the old Journal didn’t take its cues from what other newspapers would want.

Beating other papers at their own game is exactly what the new ownership seems to prize. In a conference call to the paper’s Washington bureau in April, Thomson pointed enthusiastically to a page-one political story by the reporter Monica Langley. Headlined “He’s Back,” the article detailed the increasing influence of Bill Clinton on the presidential campaign of his wife, Hillary. The new publisher-editor described it as “perfect in every way.” But Thomson’s Washington-bureau audience was merely whelmed. True, the Langley piece was timely, it came on the heels of a resurgence in Hillary’s campaign, and what it lacked in access it made up for in provocative analysis. In other words, it was the kind of story The New York Times would have loved to have. But the old Journal would not have cared, or at least not that much.

“It is preposterous to think that we would want to dilute our core competency,” Thomson told a group of the paper’s editors and reporters in a conference call this spring. But many at the paper fear that this is exactly what he is doing. Since Murdoch took over the paper, general-news items have proliferated. The What’s News columns on page one, which formerly offered simply an executive briefing of the day’s business and general news and effectively advertised The Journal’s nonchalance about mainstream preoccupations, today has become a table of contents, each item referencing by page number a fuller story inside. So far, these stories are unimpressive—often just a brief compilation of wire-service reporting. In a world where many readers already know the news before they pick up the newpaper—and where The Journal’s Web site, the natural place to emphasize breaking news, remains sequestered for the most part behind a subscribers-only firewall—this practice doesn’t seem to make much sense.

It does, however, reflect classic Murdochian principles, and Murdoch does seem to have a sense for what sells. He apparently intends to expand the Journal staff to add meat to that broadened coverage, which would mean more stories like those found everywhere else. But even if aping the competition increased the newspaper’s readership—and it is hard to see how it would—it would also destroy what made TheJournal great. In addition to stressing more breaking, general-news stories, Thomson has made clear that he intends to “clarify reporting lines,” which is taken to mean that he plans to thin the ranks of the mid-level editors who were the newspaper’s line of defense against sloppiness and error. It is worth noting that the number of corrections in the first quarter of this year, under Murdoch’s reign, has risen by more than 25 percent compared with the first quarter of 2007, an increase that the company says reflects an increase in the number of stories the new Journal is running.

“People are running around frightened and confused,” said one longtime Journal reporter. “The push is toward news, news, news. It feels like Murdoch wants to make us more like every other newspaper in the country.”

“Murdoch says he wants to turn it into something more like The New York Times, but I suspect it will end up looking more like USA Today,” said Roberts.

Another longtime Journal reporter remembers that a former editor in chief, Paul Steiger, used to warn reporters who complained about the paper’s hidebound ways, “It could be worse—we could be owned by Rupert Murdoch.”

Let me say one thing,” Murdoch told his new staff on the day he took over the paper. “As we go forwahd, you will probably find, aaaaah, an evah-increasing concentration on globalization, the whole world, and digitization. But in spite of that, for many, many years to come, The Wall Street Journal will be a key frontispiece to everything we do. So thank you very, very much.”

If the new owner’s comments were jovial and enthusiastic, Thomson’s follow-up sent a chill through the newsroom.

“The world is changing exponentially,” he said. “While it’s right to be respectful of the past, these days it is certainly fatal to be bound by history. He who stands still will be overrun.”

Their audience was of roughly three minds, according to a Journal staffer who dissected the newsroom’s mood for me. There were those who were already making plans to leave, or knew they would jump ship at the first decent opportunity. He called this group “the Extremists”; it included reporters like the Pulitzer-winning Bandler, who recently left for Fortune magazine. Then there were those who knew that the takeover could spell disaster for the kind of journalism they loved, but who were reluctant to believe that Murdoch would really dismantle something so admirable and successful. He called this group “the Hopefuls.”

“And then there was the third portion of the room,” he said. “This is a big group. These are the people who see the tribulations of the industry, who felt sure that if nothing had changed there would be certain cutbacks and layoffs in TheJournal’s future, who were feeling the general dread that all newsrooms in America feel right now. And they thought, Here’s an owner who is going to invest! My job is secure! He’ll beef up the paper, and even if this means we may become more like Fox News, it’s worth it because we will still have the opportunity to do great work. These are the people who believed that Marcus Brauchli would save them. This is the group that I call ‘Naive.’”

At the end of that session, with his typical insouciance, Murdoch again took the mike, to conclude the show.

“Well, I think that’s all we have to say,” he said. “So you better get back to work and make sure you’re not scooped tomorrow.”

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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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