We knew it was coming. The News Corp. Death Star has moved into place over the Wall Street Journal. Richard Zannino, the Dow Jones CEO who forged a Neville Chamberlain peace with the invaders, has been granted safe passage, and now there’s no protection at all for anyone else. In a few years, the Journal may look nothing like it does now—they’ve even talked about removing Wall Street from its name. Editorial independence? If you believe that, News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch would be happy to sell you a bridge.
Dark days indeed—possibly the end of media life as we know it. And yet. No doubt Murdoch is an adherent of the dark side of the Force. But the force, quaint as it can seem, is newsprint. For all the satellites and far-flung TV stations, Murdoch is afflicted with the same anachronistic passion that drives his legions of critics. Murdoch is a newspaper guy, a true believer. Why else would he offer such an extravagant new-media dowry—a 67 percent premium, some $5 billion—for such a frumpy old-media institution, then suffer the indignity of an excruciating, months-long, highly public courtship? Maybe the smartest of money knows something Wall Street itself hasn’t yet figured out about the intrinsic worth of newsprint dinosaurs. It’s the kind of investment that can change a paradigm.
Murdoch has made no secret of his next target: It’s the New York Times he wants to bury. Binary conflict, waged with newsprint, has been the central organizing principle of Murdoch’s worldview since he started out in Adelaide, Australia, in the fifties. He needs an enemy. And culturally, the Times is an affront to everything he’s stood for. He’s predator, the paper of record is prey.
On one level, the Times doesn’t need any more problems. Last month, executive editor Bill Keller announced newsroom layoffs for the first time in years. Its diaphanous tower, meant to announce its entry into the new economy, instead sends an oddly mixed message, as if the paper itself, deprived of its solid, comfortable old pile, is in danger of blowing away.
And there’s another way Murdoch is doing the Times a favor—he’s going to put an end to the era of introspection at the paper that began with the Jayson Blair imbroglio and has continued since, as the Times has struggled to redefine itself in the new-media age. It’s going to be much harder to worry about what the ombudsman is going to say when Rupert Murdoch is attempting to eat your lunch. Murdoch can’t teach the Times much about journalism. But Murdoch has always understood that conflict with a formidable enemy can provide focus and clarity and pay huge dividends in terms of morale. And that’s a lesson the Times is overdue. Which is why next year is liable to be a great year in the history of newspapers. Does Murdoch really think he can beat the Times at its own game, in its own city? It’s on.