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The Raging Septuagenarian

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Fox News chief Roger Ailes.  

The New York section is run by John Seeley, who, as managing editor of the New York Sun, had earned the nickname “Iron Man.” Several other new employees are refugees from the defunct conservative daily, which was chiefly a mix of highly competent small-bore metro stories, right-wing opinion, and eclectic cultural criticism.

Murdoch had long been an admirer of the Sun, a succès d’estime among some conservatives that never attracted a significant New York readership or advertising base. In September 2008, during its death throes, he even considered buying the paper, hosting a breakfast meeting at News Corp. headquarters with the Sun’s editor, Seth Lipsky, and investors Bruce Kovner and Tommy Tisch. But Murdoch had cooled to the idea a few weeks later. “The Sun’s going to close,” he told Ken Bialkin, a lawyer who was advising the failing paper, according to a person familiar with the talks. “Maybe I’ll hire Lipsky as a columnist. But I have my hands full here.” Instead of buying the Sun, he seems to be building a replica of it, to be inserted into the Journal.

Shortly after the Journal deal closed in December 2007, Murdoch appeared before shell-shocked staff, standing on a stack of printer paper like a general addressing a vanquished army. “The message was clear,” one reporter in the room remembers. “It was: ‘You’re a bunch of lazy, self-important, past-their-prime journalists.’ ” The Journal’s then–managing editor, Marcus Brauchli, and senior Journal executives stood off to the side. Four months later, Brauchli was forced out of the job, leaving with a reported $6.4 million in severance.

But having humiliated them—and pushed many of them out—Murdoch is assimilating the remaining staffers into his merry band of raiders. He has a deep, instinctual belief in the power and importance of newspapers and the wherewithal to continue to invest in them (Dow Jones is a tiny part of his business, amounting to 3 percent of News Corp.’s total revenue). Murdoch has made the Journal feel like the center of his universe. He spent $80 million to transform four floors of News Corp.’s office tower into a state-of-the-art newsroom for the Journal. It is something of a showpiece. At the center of the cavernous space is a cluster of desks and computers known as “the Hub,” a Star Trek–like bridge where top editors pilot the paper’s 24/7 mission. Around the room, flat-screen televisions broadcast Fox News and the struggling Fox Business Network (“We’re doing our bit to help Fox Business,” Thomson joked to his staff). Digital clocks display the time in Singapore, New York, and London. Coffee machines are stationed throughout the floors, and the annual coffee budget runs $100,000. The newsroom buzzes with a confidence unusual for these times. “I didn’t go into journalism in 1975 to end up working for Rupert Murdoch,” David Wessel, the Journal’s well-regarded economics editor, told me, “but it sure turns out to be nice to have a deep-pocketed owner at this time in the industry.”

“Buying the Journal was the worst deal he ever did. It never made sense.” — A Former Senior News Corp. Executive

Murdoch’s strong attachment to the Journal has engendered support in surprising quarters of the journalism Establishment as many have reconsidered their anti-Murdoch views. “It’s a much livelier paper,” says Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, Murdoch’s onetime tabloid antagonist. (Murdoch and Zuckerman have, for the time being, laid down their swords—Murdoch, a businessman to the core, can make peace as easily as he makes war. In a move that has many different possible meanings, the New York Post recently cheered on Zuckerman’s possible Senate run.)

“Hats off to Murdoch; he’s serious about print journalism. He’s the last guy standing who believes in it,” says former Times executive editor Joe Lelyveld. “Arthur [Sulzberger] is the guy who said a few years ago he didn’t know if the Times will be standing as a print newspaper.” When I asked Lelyveld if he thought his former boss Sulzberger believed in the value of the Times’ print edition, he grew quiet. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to answer that question.”

In October, Rupert and Wendi Murdoch attended a party for Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, at the Times Building to celebrate their book Half the Sky. Rupert had arrived late and walked into the building alone. Wendi was already up on the fifteenth floor mingling with Keller, Sulzberger, and other Times luminaries. Staffers did a double take when Murdoch walked straight past the security desk and the turnstiles mysteriously opened for him, as if he owned the place. “He just went right through,” one bewildered Times staffer told me. “There was this feeling he was walking right into the lion’s den.”

Earlier this month, I visited the Times to see how it’s confronting the Murdoch threat. In December, Times media columnist David Carr published an article alleging that the Journal is veering rightward. Thomson responded with a statement and attacked the piece as “more evidence that the New York Times is uncomfortable about the rise of an increasingly successful rival while its own circulation and credibility are in retreat.”


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