The A-hed and the A-hole

Did Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Wall Street Journal ruin a once-great paper, or save it from itself?

By Justin Peters

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War at the Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle to Control an American Business Empire
by Sarah Ellison
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp.

On July 31, 2007, the barbarians finally made it over the gate. On that day, media titan Rupert Murdoch sealed a $5.6 billion deal to buy Dow Jones, parent company of the Wall Street Journal. For decades, the Journal had styled itself the smartest daily in the country, with its intelligent reporting, trenchant analysis, and A-heds—the long, thoughtful feature stories that ran perpendicular to the day’s news. Now, it was owned by the man who gave the world Sean Hannity, the modern New York Post, and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire. Paradise, as they say, had been lost.

Or, at least, that’s the impression you get from War at the Wall Street Journal, Sarah Ellison’s account of the paper’s acquisition by Murdoch’s News Corp. A former WSJ reporter, Ellison covered the sale of the paper for the paper, and she knows her subject well. Her "tick-tock" reporting on the maneuverings that led to the sale is comprehensive and credible, and will likely be welcomed by those who care about the business of news. Her assessment of the transaction’s aftermath, however, is somewhat less satisfying.

The Wall Street Journal was first published in 1889 as a straightforward business paper; in the 1940s and ’50s, under editor Barney Kilgore, it remade itself into a national daily that could legitimately argue that it was "the best damn paper in the country." Like the New York Times and the Washington Post, its rivals for that designation, the Journal was family owned. But unlike the Sulzbergers or the Grahams, the Bancrofts were not active in the paper’s day-to-day operations. Rather, they pursued a strategy of "benign neglect," content to enjoy their steady stock income and let the professionals run the business.

Then, in the 2000s, the stock price started dropping—by 44 percent in five years—and the Bancrofts’ neglect began to seem somewhat less benign. Longtime CEO Peter Kann retired, and Murdoch, who had long coveted the Journal, sensed an opportunity. When he came calling in March 2007, offering $60 per share—a $25 premium over the market price at the time—the family showed some token resistance, but the outcome was never really in doubt. The Bancrofts’ ultimate attitude to the Murdoch incursion was emblematized by board member Chris Bancroft, who, wearing a baseball cap that read "Bite Me," spoke against the sale and then proceeded to vote his trustee shares in favor of it. They might not have liked Murdoch, but they had absolutely no problem with Murdoch’s money.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that there are no likable characters in the book. The members of the Bancroft family present the world’s best argument for a vigorous estate tax. They are caricatures of the idle rich, alternately ineffectual and petulant, ignorant on matters of both journalism and business. (Ellison writes that a couple of anti-Murdoch Bancrofts offered to buy out those relatives who wanted to sell, only to rescind the offer after realizing they had no idea how to actually broker such a deal.)

The peons don’t fare much better. The Journal reporters and editors seem complacent, while the corporate types who presided over the deal seem small-minded and callow, singularly unfit to decide the fate of a newspaper of national importance; new Dow Jones CEO Richard Zannino, who came from the apparel manufacturer Liz Claiborne, seemed not to recognize any discernable difference between selling women’s clothing and selling journalism. ("One of his big critiques of the Journal," writes Ellison, "was that it lacked positive stories about successful CEOs and their companies.")

In fact, a case could be made that the most sympathetic character here is Murdoch. At times, he seems a stereotypical comic book villain—crass and artless, betraying everyone in his life as a matter of course in his joyless grasps for money and power. But whatever else bad that can be said about him, Murdoch exists in the real world, unlike nearly everybody else in the book. As Ellison puts it, the Bancrofts’ Journal "had seemed beyond time’s changes, newsstand appeal, and even questions of readability." Murdoch alone seems to recognize that newspapers are supposed to be read by actual people, and most of his changes were designed with that in mind. He wanted color instead of grayscale; photographs instead of hedcuts; short ledes instead of "stories with the gestation of a llama"; and actual news reporting instead of clunky analysis. He didn’t want the Journal to be anybody’s second read. "We’re going to build a fucking great paper and I do not give a fuck what New York or the media has to say about it!" he exclaimed soon after closing on the purchase. "We’ll build the world’s best paper!"

Of course, nobody actually expects him to succeed. Ellison certainly doesn’t—she clearly thinks that Murdoch ruined an American institution. "Coverage of the presidential primaries dominated the front page in a paper that had originally made its name with enlightening features on business and the economy," Ellison sniffs, noting that Josh Prager, a feature reporter who "wrote less than a story a year" on topics that were "never relevant to the news of the day," resigned in 2009, convinced that he and the paper no longer fit well together. "The worship of byline and word counts and all that is ‘urgent’ has doubtless stifled the boundless creativity of the Journal staff. I hope the paper will address this problem," wrote Prager in his farewell e-mail.

But one man’s boundless creativity is another man’s self-indulgence. The truth is that, in the years before its sale, the Journal was often flaccid and ponderous and dull, its staffers so pleased with themselves for being a step behind the news cycle that they didn’t even notice they missed the biggest story of their time.

n May 2009, Dean Starkman, my coworker at the Columbia Journalism Review (and a former Journal reporter), published an article assessing the financial press’s performance in the years leading up to the recent financial crisis. Starkman read several thousand articles published between 2000 and 2007 to see how active nine major outlets had been in reporting on and warning about subprime lending, deregulation, and other causes of the crisis. He found that those outlets—including the Wall Street Journal—had been largely silent for much of that time: "Missing are investigative stories that confront directly powerful institutions about basic business practices while those institutions were still powerful. This is not a detail. This is the watchdog that didn’t bark."

With that in mind, it’s hard to buy the argument that Murdoch single-handedly crippled a great paper, since Ellison’s evidence for greatness rests on its editors’ willingness to publish quirky stories about the wastrel who inherited the royalties to the children’s book Goodnight Moon. I like a good piece of narrative reporting literally more than anyone I know; I loved the Journal’s A-heds, and I mourn their passing. But, look, that was journalism produced for and by the nation’s elite, divorced from any real awareness of readers and audience outside the East Coast nexus. The world’s economy collapsed while the Wall Street Journal was doing everything in its power to not report the news.

That’s not to say that Ellison is wrong about Murdoch—make no mistake, he still comes across as a horrible, horrible person; his Journal up to now can hardly be counted as "a fucking great paper." But say what you will about him and his choices, Murdoch is determined to produce journalism for actual people. "You know, reporters are not writers in residence," Murdoch told an assembly of Journal editors. "I think we have to have news and analysis and we have to break hard news … don’t run away from it. Go with it. I’d like to pick up the paper and say ‘Gosh, I must read that—did that really happen?’"

Barbarism? Perhaps. But you could also call it journalism.


If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.


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Justin Peters is an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

 
 
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