Times Scrambles as Murdoch's Journal Prepares Assault

Interesting media news this Monday as Newsweek takes a look at the coming war between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The mag's piece in turn sparked a newspaper industry news boomlet as other publications rushed to find out whether Newsweek's claim that liberal Democrat Republican New York mayor Michael Bloomberg might give the New York Times Company a cash infusion to "protect the brand."

Not so, says Bloomberg, who denied the claim that he was trying to get into the newspaper biz or purchase a share in Times Co.

An excerpt from the excellent Newsweek piece that started it all is below the fold...

This week the Murdochian Era of the Proper Newspaperman has its debut. When readers open their newspapers Monday morning, they will discover a Wall Street Journal fashioned to the tastes of the man who revolutionized media markets from Australia to North America. With its increased focus on politics, international news, culture and sports, Murdoch's reconceived Journal represents nothing short of a formal declaration of war on that most venerable of journalistic institutions, The New York Times. Not since William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal challenged Joseph Pulitzer's New York World in the late 19th century has there been such a clash of newspaper titans. As was the case when Hearst took on Pulitzer, Murdoch-the son of an Australian journalist-still believes newspapers are the most influential media for shaping the public discourse, even in this new-media century. The fight could escalate in unknown ways if billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ends up acquiring the Times. As Newsweek has learned, top associates of the onetime information executive are encouraging him to do just that.

It isn't hard to guess which role Murdoch will play in this fight. Caricatured as the heir to Hearst's brand of yellow journalism, he was pilloried in much of the "respectable" press when he made his $5 billion, $65-a-share bid for Dow Jones last spring. Journalistic purists bellowed that he would sully the Journal with a mix of sensationalism and self-interested editorializing. But Murdoch presumably knows it would be idiocy to destroy the Journal brand (this is a flamethrower who appears to know the difference between scorching something and giving it sizzle). The new Journal is as respectable, restrained and readable as it has ever been-but with a broader world view designed to appeal to audiences well beyond its traditional, pin-striped base. But is that what Journal readers want?

To understand why the 77-year-old Murdoch has been itching for this particular fight, look no further than the mogul's three passions: print, power and respect. Using his knowledge of the first (he started his empire when his father bequeathed him Australia's Adelaide News when he was 22), Murdoch achieved the second. As for respect? Well, that's been more elusive, bestowed only grudgingly by those who simultaneously respect, detest and envy him. Murdoch has assembled one of the globe's biggest media empires, a conglomerate valued at $60 billion that will one day pass to his six children and seems destined to be run by his younger son, James. Critics like to paint Murdoch as a Machiavellian barbarian bent on world domination. So acquiring the venerable Wall Street Journal and then dethroning the nation's newspaper of record? Now that's something to bring a man respect.

The timing for Murdoch couldn't be better. With News Corp.'s deep pockets, he is attacking the Gray Lady at a moment of incredible vulnerability. Along with much of the rest of old media, the Times has been losing advertising dollars to the Internet hand over fist, though its Web site is a big hit with readers. Late last week its parent company reported a first-quarter loss of $335,000; the Times's own business section said it was "one of the worst periods the company and the newspaper industry have seen." Advertising, its lifeblood, fell almost 11 percent, "the sharpest drop in memory," the Times wrote. The newspaper is currently seeking to chop its staff by 100 through a voluntary buyout, and the cost-cutting isn't likely to abate in the months and years ahead. By contrast, Murdoch has been letting the spending flow at the Journal-beefing up its Washington bureau, seeking additional printing capacity and planning the launch of a glossy weekend magazine, WSJ., edited by Tina Gaudoin, a Brit who worked for the Murdoch-owned Times of London.

From the beginning, Murdoch had no intention of radically altering the appearance of the Journal, once known for its ink-dot black-and-white illustrations. The series of editorial and design changes introduced this week, and yet to come, are more evolutionary than revolutionary. Collectively, however, his modifications represent a shift more profound perhaps than any of the previous overhauls in the paper's 119-year history, including its late-to-the-party introduction of photographs in the 1980s, to its redesign of the iconic front page in 2002. Under Murdoch, news stories on politics and national and international affairs may just as often dominate page one as the business pieces that have been its bread and butter. Along with the refocused front page, Murdoch is effectively relaunching the entire A section as a catchall for general news. As of Monday, the second section, Marketplace, becomes home to the Journal's coverage of corporate America, while the third section, Money and Investing, remains the showcase for news of the financial markets and investing. A culture section is under development for a fall debut in the Journal's weekend edition, and Murdoch has added a weekly sports page. The op-ed section, famous for its erudite and influential espousal of conservative ideology, will grow to three pages from two.

Rather than entrust the job of all this to subordinates, Murdoch has been devoting half his time since acquiring Dow Jones to reshaping the paper. He has become a regular and jarring presence in the Journal newsroom: ever since he appeared unannounced on Easter-to, as he puts it, "set an example"-top editors have been dragging themselves into the Journal's headquarters across from Ground Zero on Sundays. "What sets Rupert apart is that after he's made a major acquisition, he goes in and works it and gets it running the way he wants it to, and then leaves managers in place," says Arthur Siskind, senior adviser to Murdoch.

Definitely read the rest. It's worth your time.

Update 18:01. One unfortunate thing about this article is that it repeats a mistake that liberal journalists often make when reporting on Murdoch--disparately labeling him as "conservative" while failing to do so for his ideological opponents like Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr., lead owner of the New York Times and Ted Turner, Murdoch's vanquished rival formerly of CNN.

Newsweek writer Johnnie Roberts mentions Sulzberger 11 times in his story but only once mentions that Sulzberger and the Times lean left. Roberts is similarly unfair when discussing Murdoch's battles with Turner, not once bothering to mention that Turner is a liberal--much less the raving socialist that he is.

In contrast, Roberts litters his piece with repeated references to Murdoch being "right-wing" and the Journal being known for its conservative editorial page. Both of these statements are true (though I question how far to the right Murdoch actually is), however, a fair reporter would have either not made them as repeatedly as Roberts does or made them more frequently when discussing Sulzberger, the Times, CNN, and Turner.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013