Thomson’s views of journalists are closely aligned with those of his boss: He thinks most of them are liberals overly concerned with writing stories that will impress other liberal journalists and win prizes in journalism competitions. With a pronounced stoop brought on by arthritis in his spine, Thomson is something of an awkward leader, “a wimpy nerd,” as he described himself in a recent speech. His gaunt frame is accentuated by a wardrobe of shiny, narrow-cut suits paired with skinny ties. He tempers this ungainly presence with a wry, self-effacing manner and a habit of laughing at his own jokes.
Historically, the Journal had treated general news as a commodity for other papers to cover. Instead, it focused journalistic muscle on its deep financial coverage, with a specialty in long narrative articles chronicling boardroom struggles as epic sagas of greed and ambition. While it owned the business beat, its front page was a hybrid of a magazine and a newspaper, defined by its subdued headlines and hand-drawn illustrations. Paul Steiger, the Journal’s longtime editor, used to say that the Journal was a “second read.”
Murdoch and Thomson flatly despised this conception. With newspaper circulation and advertising in retreat, they believed readers had little time for one paper, let alone two. To win, the Journal needed to become an aggressive, general-interest newspaper that would grab readers’ attention at the newsstand and assault the New York Times as the country’s preeminent agenda setter. Over the past year, Thomson, following Murdoch’s direction, made dramatic changes to the paper, insisting on shorter stories and covering natural disasters and plane crashes. The transition was jarring. “What is this, a high-school newspaper?” one reporter recalled thinking after an editor sent out an assignment to cover a shooting in upstate New York last spring. The strategy has allowed the paper to make some modest inroads, especially in cities, such as San Francisco, for instance, where the local paper has struggled in the new media environment. But the danger is that redefining it as a general-interest paper—an upscale, edgier USA Today—risks alienating its exceptionally affluent core audience and surrendering its advantage as a business paper.
The paper’s evolving politics don’t seem designed to attract the Times’ well-to-do center-left readership, either. Under Thomson and his deputy, Gerry Baker, a British neoconservative and former columnist for the Times of London, the Journal shed its midwestern roots (both its legendary editor Barney Kilgore and its former star James B. Stewart are DePauw University alums). Now reporters check the FT and Times of London websites each morning. Thomson believes that his reporters should be “feisty, not lapdogs with laptops or meek members of a political movement.” With this shift came a new political viewpoint: not conservative, necessarily, but oppositional to the prevailing media Establishment led, in Thomson and Baker’s view, by the liberalism of the Times and the Washington Post. Editors insist that reporters identify sources’ political affiliations.
Baker was charged to oversee the Journal’s political coverage, an assignment that raised eyebrows. As a columnist, he had championed Sarah Palin, labeling Obama a “greasy-pole climber” while writing that Palin’s “experience … enables her to understand the concerns of most Americans.” Baker’s views appalled many at the Journal. During a tense meeting with the paper’s Washington staff in November 2008, one reporter told Baker that the Journal’s news pages were supposed to be a political counterweight to the paper’s rabid right-wing editorials. Baker began telling people that he saw his role as policing the Journal’s coverage. “Our emphasis is on straight reporting,” Thomson says. “If that happens to be seen as not progressive enough, then indeed it is unconventional wisdom.”
On the seventh floor of News Corp.’s midtown headquarters, largely in secret, Murdoch began building what he sees as the ultimate Times-killer. Next month, if all goes according to plan, the Journal will launch an eight-to-sixteen-page metropolitan section that will directly challenge the paper of record on its home turf. “New York will be the next phase of the transformation,” Thomson tells me. The Journal has signed on Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman as new advertisers and is said to be spending $15 million on the venture, dubbed “Project Amsterdam.” At a time when a national audience is the one coveted by most advertisers—and when local news is less profitable than ever—it seems a quixotic business proposition, at best. But this assault has very little to do with business. “He’ll be completely irrational about spending,” a person close to the company says. “It’s a spear-thrust right at the Times, intended to embarrass and bleed the Times,” a senior Journal editor explained. If anyone doubted the New York section’s centrality to the Journal’s mission, Thomson seated the metro desk right near his office at the front of the newsroom. “The idea of the New York Times as a burning, sinking ship is something they fantasize about at night,” says the senior Journal editor.