May 1, 2008

What will become of the Wall Street Journal under media baron Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Journal‘s parent company in December for $5.16 billion? We got our first hint last week when he pushed out Marcus Braschli, the WSJ’s managing editor, and put in his own man. He said the changes he wants to make were not moving fast enough (four months).

When Murdoch bought the Journal’s parent company, lovers of excellent journalism experienced a collective chill. The WSJ is the best daily business and finance newspaper in the world, and its coverage of world and national news ranks with the NY Times and Times of London. Now it’s owned by the owner of Fox News, the NY Post and supermarket tabloids all over the world.

According to the WSJ’s account of this change of editors, Murdoch told the editorial staff that the competition for them will be the NY Times. He wants catchier headlines, shorter stories, a smarter layout, more stories on Page One, and stories that begin and end on section fronts instead of jumping to an inside page. He wants newsier stories with the hard news up top, and a greater variety of stories, like the NY Times, to attract a broader cross-section of readers. More varied readers will attract more varied advertisers, especially retail and consumer products, as well as the business-to-business advertising the paper has always relied upon.

Murdoch generally keeps hands off editorial policy and content in his properties, according to his editors and publishers. He set up a committee at the WSJ of experienced editors to protect reporters and editors from his interference.. He reputedly doesn’t care what his companies say as long as they make a lot of money. The WSJ made money but was not growing, like all print newspapers today. Murdoch bought the paper supposedly for its prestige, and because he thought he could improve its profits and growth curve

.Some media-watchers think Murdoch is a pirate, the Darth Vader of media. They point to Fox News, a political movement disguised as a news organization, and The New York Post, which was a scrappy little newspaper until he turned it into a trashy scandal sheet.

In 1992, The Daily Sun, another one of his many supermarket tabloids, broke the Gennifer Flowers story, Bill Clinton’s first bimbo eruption,

Murdoch also owns many fine media enterprises around the world. The Times of London and The Financial Times are still world-class newspapers. He owns the local Fox TV stations, the Fox TV Network, the Fox cable networks, and Fox movie studios.

Fox News has dragged down the quality and standards of TV news everywhere, but there’s nothing evil about these other properties. He also owns book publishers, magazines, TV satellite enterprises, and You Tube.

His decision to be more like the NY Times might mean more bad news ahead for good journalism. He will not enlarge the news staff; he’ll have to divert financial reporters to other things. He’ll probably downsize the editorial staff like all corporate media owners do. You can only downsize and diversify so much before you water down and lose quality in what you do best.

If people write shorter stories, will they sacrifice depth? If they downsize their newsroom, like papers all over the U.S. have been doing for 15 years, will that mean more stories will never get covered? Will that mean one less safeguard against corporate crime?  Will corporate activity, criminal or not, become less transparent and understandable? Will it mean reporters have less time to work on a story? Corporate crime stories take time. Will lower standards at the paper with the highest standards mean lower standards for everybody else? And if the WSJ does go completely down the tubes, who or what will take its place?

Don’t panic yet, but please, do be alarmed.

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