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.
|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.”
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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.
The old days of freewheeling newspaper competition ended with the advent of telecommunications. It was a gradual process, but by the middle of the last century, television and radio were delivering breaking news instantly and universally, eliminating one of the most compelling reasons to buy a newspaper. The print product still had a huge audience, but not large enough for most cities to profitably support more than one or two newspapers. The larger cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Atlanta—still supported two or three, but usually only one newspaper “of record” and two or three scrappy tabloids that still relied on street sales, or were targeted to specific regions, like Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, or to specific slices of the readership, like The Wall Street Journal. The Journal didn’t try to compete head-to-head with The New York Times. Instead, it effectively sold itself as a mandatory “second read” for a certain class of New Yorker, and eventually a certain class of reader all over the United States.
In those fat and happy days, the glory days of “serious” American journalism, the concepts of objectivity and editorial independence grew into a kind of public religion. The old yellow era of Hearst and Pulitzer, publishers who threw their weight around vigorously and would even instigate a shooting war if it boosted circulation, had given way to a time of more-genteel ownership, often the Ivy League–educated sons and daughters of the press barons. Even the name Pulitzer was expropriated; it became an annual award given to the best examples of serious journalism, and in most newsrooms became a far more coveted goal than increased circulation. There was a high wall, we were assured, between the business side of the newspaper and its editorial staff, and newsrooms were increasingly peopled by a new generation of white-collar journalists, gentlemen (and ladies) of the Fourth Estate, arbiters of style, taste, and decency, who took upon themselves the tasks of keeping government honest and educating the public. (In my 20-plus years as a newspaper reporter, I was always amused when skeptics suggested that I wrote just what the newspaper’s owner told me to write. If only they knew how mightily the newsroom looked down its nose at the business side of the operation.)
This vision of a newspaper, one that prevailed at the highest levels of the craft for decades, ensured that the paper was not just a propaganda mill, the house organ of some rich man or political party, but a community of street-smart shoe-leather scholars who worked as the eyes, ears, and conscience of their city. This was the world of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, of David Halberstam’s and Neil Sheehan’s courageous reporting from Vietnam, and of countless other public-spirited examples of a responsible, serious journalism.
Even literary ambition began to creep into the pages of the great newspapers. At the best ones, when the material justified it, reporters were encouraged to write creatively and at length. A certain kind of reporter—and I was one—competed against others not so much for scoops, but for recognition, prizes, and tenured positions at papers where the rarefied work of “serious” journalism was underwritten. Mine was The Philadelphia Inquirer, where my byline read not “staff reporter” or “staff correspondent” but “staff writer,” and which we writers called, in its heyday, “the greatest care-and-feeding system for journalism ever invented.”
In this elevated climate, The Wall Street Journal was held in unique regard. Its disdain for street sales was defining. In appearance, it was defiantly dull and predictable. Its uniform gray vertical columns suggested the pinstripes on a banker’s worsted suit. In its use of small line drawings instead of photographs, in its refusal to chase the same stories as everyone else, in its quirkiness and uncompromising complexity, The Journal broadcast its refusal to pander to readers. Every day the front page featured two “leders” and the incomparable “a-hed.” These were long, ambitious, exceedingly well-written stories. A leder took a business or trend story and dug deeply into personalities and issues, whether it was a probe of backdated stock options for business executives by James Bandler and three other Journal writers, or Geeta Anand’s moving narrative about the crisis at a biotech company that had been asked to provide an experimental drug for a dying child. The a-hed was a quirky profile or narrative, usually brilliantly reported, a master class in feature writing: Carrie Dolan on fainting goats, Barry Newman on a man who has a doctorate in bug gunk, or Tony Horwitz on going to work in a slaughterhouse. Breaking news, no matter how shocking, was relegated to a brisk summary in two regular columns. This was a serious newspaper for serious readers, and it became the favored daily of the financial and business classes, men and women too busy making money to worry about the more sensational stories of the day.
When journalists worry about the decline of newspapers, this sort of seriousness is what they fear is being lost. The Internet is in many ways a superior medium for journalism. It costs virtually nothing, in contrast to multimillion-dollar printing presses, giant rolls of paper and tankers of ink, and fleets of delivery trucks, to say nothing of the thousands of laborers needed to operate the equipment and distribute the product. But while the Web is rapidly destroying the business model that sustained all of the above, it has yet to develop institutions capable of replacing print newspapers as vehicles for great in-depth journalism, or conscious of themselves as upholding a public trust. Instead, the Web gives voice to opinionated, unedited millions. In the digital world, ignorance and crudity share the platform with rigor and taste; the independent journalist shares the platform with spinmeisters and con artists. Cable television and satellite radio have taken broadcast journalism in the same direction, crowding out the once-dominant networks, which strove for the ideal of objectivity, with new channels that all but advertise their politics. When all news is spun, we live in a world of propaganda.
The worst part of this is, the public doesn’t seem to care.
Neither does Rupert Murdoch. The Australian mogul has never embraced the religion of modern American journalism. He scorns the pursuit of Pulitzers and sees the high-end work it rewards as journalists writing stories to impress other journalists. And he doesn’t buy the ideal of objectivity. He sees it as pretense—or hypocrisy—because he perceives a distinct liberal skew to the established journalistic powers. In Murdoch’s view, the public is best served not by objectivity, which he regards as impossible, but by “balance.”
“It’s very hard to be neutral,” he told an audience at Georgetown University last April. “The fact is that CNN has always been extremely liberal, and never had a Republican or conservative voice on it. We would say that the difference is that we [at Fox] have equal voices from both sides. The more voices the better, and let’s have them from all sides.”
He rejects the idea that the media should be dominated by a few respected, independent voices; he embraces instead a din of competing voices and interests. He is a Jeffersonian, a believer in a lively free market of ideas (except, of course, where it doesn’t suit his interests—notably in China, where he’s willing to make nice with the oppressive regime), and he scoffs at those who see danger in his acquisitiveness, at those who worry about the ever-widening reach of his media empire. A young woman at the Georgetown event complained to him directly.
“As a citizen, I’m scared,” she said. “Please convince me that this is not a threat to democracy.”
“Is all media in one hand bad for democracy? Absolutely,” Murdoch said. “We are a tiny fraction of the media landscape. There are millions of voices out there. We certainly don’t have any monopolistic effect. Everything I have done in my life has been to create competition … We want to give people choices. The more choices, the better it is. To think that the media is concentrating is ignoring the facts. It is being fragmented in a thousand ways. I would agree with you that that’s good. It doesn’t suit my business, but …”
The audience laughed. He had disarmed them.
“Fair and Balanced”—the slogan of his right-leaning, flag-waving Fox News Channel—is an international joke, but Murdoch can embrace that slogan with a straight face because he means something particular by it. He means that its distinctively conservative tilt balances out the big liberal powers that dominate the media landscape.
The same worldview promises to shape his war on TheNew York Times. It would be hard to imagine Murdoch coloring TheJournal’s crisply intelligent editorial pages any more conservative than they already are. But he can expand the number of pages devoted to opinion, as he has already done, and he can build TheJournal into a more general newspaper, broadening its coverage into the arts, religion, education, sports, and politics—areas where TheTimes is the dominant tastemaker and trendsetter. Murdoch sees TheTimes not just as a paper with primarily liberal politics but as a bastion of cultural elitism that wields a disproportionate influence over all aspects of American life. He wants his Journal to reflect another point of view, and to give people another choice.
What is the Murdochian point of view? It is not so easy to predict. His interests are dizzyingly diverse and famously open to change. He is a social liberal and a strong advocate of unfettered international trade. Other than that, he tends to be conservative, but he is also influenced by personalities, and has reportedly cozied up to the Clintons and warmed to Barack Obama. His various newspapers have staked a variety of public positions that are at least occasionally at odds with Murdoch’s own—TheTimes of London, for instance, has been consistently critical of the repressive Communist regime in China, despite its owner’s blatant and well-documented kowtowing.
He may well choose to take such a hands-off approach to The Journal’s editorial product, if only to avoid trampling its eminent reputation, but no matter how scrupulously Murdoch avoids turning it into his global mouthpiece, it will be nearly impossible for him to avoid the appearance of doing so. His tentacles are so many and so long, it is not unusual for TheJournal to carry, in a single issue, three or four headlines touching upon its owner’s dealings and interests—everything from new film and television releases to News Corporation’s various global acquisition efforts. The Journal won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for its reporting on how the rapid economic growth in China has caused great troubles for the Chinese government and its people. These were stories that would not have pleased the Communist rulers Murdoch has been assiduously courting for decades. (Most of the staff of this prize-winning China bureau signed a petition urging the Bancroft family not to sell to Murdoch, arguing that his ownership would directly undercut their credibility, if not their professional freedom.)
At least some industry observers are willing to give Murdoch the benefit of the doubt on this.
“I think he has enough sense not to trash what makes the newspaper so valuable,” said Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute. “He has owned TheTimes of London for more than 20 years, and it is still a serious newspaper.”
Serious, perhaps, but few Londoners would argue that the newspaper is anything like what it once was. Robert Block, a veteran Journal reporter who now covers the space beat for the Orlando Sentinel, worked for TheTimes in the late 1990s—more than a decade after Murdoch effectively dragged it from its pinnacle as the leading British newspaper and turned it into a hustling tabloid engaged in an incessant battle for sensational scoops. As a correspondent in South Africa, Block ran headlong into the consequences of that transformation. His editor insisted one day that he get an unsupervised interview with a 10-year-old boy at the center of an international custody dispute. Every newspaper in London was gunning for the story. Block knew where the boy was, outside Johannesburg, and knew that his parents were not at home.
“Do you have kids?” he asked his editor.
“Yes,” the man said.
“How would you feel if a reporter came after your child without approaching you first?”
“Look,” he recalls his editor saying. “It’s not your fucking kid and it’s not my fucking kid. Now go do your fucking job.”
Block refused, and quit. He joined The Wall Street Journal precisely because it was a newspaper whose values and priorities ran the opposite way. It wasn’t just the paper’s commitment to in-depth journalism, it was the commitment to finding unusual, unexpected stories, to giving readers not what they wanted every morning but stories they had never heard about before, and would hear about nowhere else—“You know, stories where you peel back the skin on something and really look underneath,” he said. Block fell in love with the paper and stayed for nearly 11 years. Last October, when it became apparent that Murdoch’s effort to buy Dow Jones would prevail, he grabbed a parachute and leapt, taking a job with the Sentinel. It was the equivalent of a power hitter for the New York Yankees opting to play for his scrappy hometown minor-league team.
“I knew that with his coming, there would inevitably be a clash of cultures,” Block said. “Murdoch is nothing if not consistent. I knew that his coming and the changes he would bring would cause a certain amount of pain. At my age and stage of my career, I just knew it was something that I did not want to go through.”
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.”