Oct 1 2007

Murdoch’s Journal

Less than meets the eye?

Once Rupert Murdoch’s bid to purchase the Dow Jones Company was made public, media watchers were nearly unanimous in bemoaning the ramifications of the deal. Observers warned that Dow Jones’ most important asset–the venerable Wall Street Journal–would be transformed from a respectable business-oriented national newspaper into a down-market, New York Post-style tabloid.

As advocates for a more diverse media, we know anything that expands the control of a media giant is troubling–and there are obvious reasons to specifically oppose Murdoch’s expanding control over the media. Murdoch’s penchant for using his holdings as vehicles for his personal business interests (and his far-right political ideology) is well-documented (CJR, 5-6/98). And Dow Jones workers were none too pleased: Their union opposed the prospect of a Murdoch takeover, and even had a job action to protest his bid (6/28/07).

But in considering the impact of Murdoch’s successful acquisition of Dow Jones, there are some assumptions that are worth examining. One of them is that the Journal is one of the nation’s most significant newspapers, comparable to the New York Times or Washington Post. On the basis of reach, though, it’s in a lower tier. While the Journal has a bigger print circulation, the biggest audiences for newspapers today are online, where the Times has triple the Journal‘s visitors (14.15 million vs. 4.49 million) and the Post (with 9.16 million) twice as many.

The Journal‘s online numbers are lower because it’s chosen to put its news coverage behind a paid subscriber wall (though not its right-wing editorial coverage, which gives an indication of Dow Jones‘ priorities). This strategy, while quite profitable, does limit the paper’s reach–as well as the damage that Murdoch can do with it.

Of course, circulation does not tell the whole story of a newspaper’s influence. But here, too, it’s possible to exaggerate the Journal‘s impact. On the key issues of the current era–the Iraq War, the assault on civil liberties, climate change, you name it–the paper has usually been with the large pack of dogs that didn’t bark, rather than with the small group of news outlets that distinguished themselves by raising alarms. (In that sense, the dismemberment of Knight Ridder is a much bigger loss to journalism than the Journal‘s sale.) Even on financial issues, where Journal reporters might be expected to shine, the paper didn’t distinguish itself with prescient coverage of the stock market or housing bubbles.

In an August 1 letter to readers, Journal publisher L. Gordon Crovitz explained that the paper considered business and financial news most important because “livelihoods depend on it, and capital is deployed because of it.” That’s a pretty good description of the paper’s priorities, which do not particularly include helping citizens make informed judgments about public policy.

Much of the Journal‘s news hole is filled with material about business written by business, as a classic study by the Columbia Journalism Review (3-4/80) found. Looking at one edition of the Journal, researchers found a striking number of stories that were essentially press releases reprinted verbatim: “We project that 84 stories were based on press releases in the October 4 Journal–45 percent of the day’s 188 news items and 27 percent of the paper’s non-tabular news hole.”

Still, the news stories of the Journal actually written by the staff have earned a reputation for being well-written and thoughtful–not words usually associated with the Murdoch empire. Some change, at least, is predictable; given News Corp.’s protectiveness toward its investments in China (New York Times, 6/26/07), don’t expect the paper to receive any more Pulitzers for covering the downside of Beijing’s embrace of globalization.

Part of the impetus behind Murdoch buying the Journal is his plan to launch a business-oriented cable channel, for which the paper could provide material. Echoing the strategy that launched the Fox News Channel, Murdoch is attempting to position his Fox Business Network as an unbiased alternative to the supposedly left-leaning current offerings–a claim that reaches new heights of absurdity when your chief competition is CNBC.

With a straight face, the mogul declared that his channel will be “more business-friendly” than the GE-owned network, with News Corp. chief Roger Ailes adding that CNBC is “not as friendly to corporations and profits as they should be” (New York Times, 2/9/07). If News Corp. tries to bring the Journal into line with this strategy, it would mean big changes for the news pages, which are far less boosterish than CNBC.

The Journal‘s editorial pages, on the other hand, wouldn’t have to change much. They might have to lighten up on their China-bashing a bit, but when it comes to corporations and profits, no one is friendlier. In fact, the editorialists already host a Fox News chat show, the Journal Editorial Report, so there can’t be much about their views that Murdoch would object to.