Murdoch and the WSJ, Not Quite the Morality Play

During the height of last week’s frenzy over the News of the World phone hacking scandal, there was a particular strain of horror to be seen on Twitter about the fate of the Wall Street Journal. Tainted by the paper’s propinquity to Murdoch’s other, riper media outlets, many journalists used the phone hacking scandal as an excuse to pound the table once again at the ways Murdoch had sullied the legendary financial paper.

Some suggested the phone hacking scandal would open a path for the Financial Times to gain readership and influence. Others floated scenarios where Bloomberg or Reuters might pony up $3 billion to “save” the paper. But anyone who has followed the Journal’s evolution closely will tell you that there’s absolutely nothing bad about the paper. Murdoch has sought to transform the Wall Street Journal from a unique newspaper into a broader news organization that uses the newspaper, the web, apps and email to expand its footprint.

Yes, the WSJ is not same paper it was under the Bancroft’s ownership. Then, it produced a quirky hybrid of long form features overlaid upon a dense presentation of micro-detail on companies, markets and economics. For those of us who loved it, the WSJ was a constant companion and a beacon of journalistic aspiration. Few days passed without the Page One editors hitting it out of the park with a fantastic profile, thumbsucker essay or behind-the-scenes tick-tock on a signal event.

One reason for all of the wailing is that what many readers most admired about the Journal is exactly what Murdoch eradicated. Murdoch’s editors made the stories shorter, moved resources off unique beats to duplicate political and social coverage seen elsewhere. But there’s good evidence the Journal was only following readers with those changes. Had the long stories been viable, the WSJ’s changes would have opened a space for Fortune to soar unrivaled or the remade Bloomberg BusinessWeek capture the “thoughtful” reader. Neither has made much noise in the past few years.

Overlooked by so many Journal critics is the way the organization has spread its wings. Where other newspapers have become overwhelmed by a star system that turns the paper into a daily magazine of columns and feature stories, the Journal generates a massive amount of information and repurposes it into blogs, stories, email newsletters, video reports and old-fashioned newspaper stories.

More than any other organization—including the giants Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters—the WSJ is a model of disciplined, integrated and expansive coverage. In the future, it may be looked to as the model for a truly global news organization.

As for the more serious charge leveled against the paper by Joe Nocera in his New York Times column–that the WSJ editors blithely reported Rupert Murdoch’s dismissive comments about the phone hacking scandal without serious challenge–he’s right. That story stuck out like a sore thumb. And it reflects Murdoch’s poor judgment more than anything else because the fact that it was such a painful anomaly only underscores the fact that on 99.9% of the rest of its coverage, the Journal plays it more than straight.

Here’s Sarah Lyall and Graham Bowley in the New York Times yesterday:

“Rupert likes to gossip,” a senior journalist at the paper said. “He is interested in what the news is that day.” But, according to a former editor at one of the London papers, “Rupert has an attention span of — maybe not zero minutes — but nine minutes.”

In an informal conversation with the senior journalist on the newsroom floor, Mr. Murdoch showed that he was especially excited by the future introduction of the weekend Review section, the journalist said. “He said he wanted to make it upmarket. He wanted to make it brainy. He said, ‘I really want people to have something to read’ — stressing the word read — ‘on weekends.’ ”

But for all their personal closeness, Mr. Murdoch makes no effort to influence the news coverage, said Mr. Thomson, The Journal’s top editor.

“We simply do not discuss details of coverage,” Mr. Thomson said via e-mail. “Not once. Never. There is a clear, distinct, very honorably observed demarcation line. Rupert respects the independence of the editor and my autonomy, and to suggest that we skew coverage is an insult to all of The Journal’s journalists, who person for person, pound for pound are certainly the best in the world.”

Even if you don’t believe that Murdoch honors the line between editorial and the publishing side at the Journal, any objective assessment of the news organization over the last few years has to give News Corporation’s stewardship credit.


Murdoch Veterans Portray a Fully Engaged Boss
by Sarah Lyall and Graham Bowley
The New York Times; July 26, 2011

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