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Rupert, White Knight

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Certainly this is how the families see themselves. And they may not be completely deluded. Yet, in every instance, these papers, which tried for years to wish away the Internet and are only now laboring to adapt to the new technological and generational realities, are undeniably losing: losing readers, losing advertisers, losing traction in the conversation.

Now comes Murdoch, offering Dow Jones, with its stagnant stock price and its woeful mismanagement, a different and arguably more promising way forward. (Not to mention a stratospheric premium.) And the reaction on the part of most of the Bancrofts is chilly to the point of permafrost—while the tut-tutters of the media-watchdog game bemoan last Tuesday as, in the words of one at CJR Daily, “a black day for journalism.”

Once again, much of the antagonism toward Murdoch is, on its face, about his right-wing politics and the politics of his outlets. About Fox News, in other words. But although many of the Bancrofts are said to be Democrats, it’s hard to imagine that an aversion to nuthouse conservatism is fueling their resistance to Murdoch—unless, that is, they haven’t noticed the Journal’s editorial page for, oh, the past three or four decades.

No, judging by the emanations that have long wafted out of the Bancroft camp, the concern has to do with the notion that The Wall Street Journal is a “public trust”—and that Murdoch, once he gets his hands on the paper, will defile the sacred temple. No one sensible, and surely not I, would ever claim that Murdoch hasn’t exhibited a pronounced tendency toward the down-market. Yet that tendency is far from uniform. In London, his massively successful tabloid, The Sun, with its bare boobs forever festooned on page 3, sits happily on the newsstand next to the Times, a “quality” paper by any definition, and hardly a lunatic right-wing rag. More to the point, Murdoch surely understands that the whole value of the Journal rests on its savvy, upscale readers (and the advertisers they entice). To piss them away would be commercial suicide—and hara-kari has never been one of Rupert’s proclivities.

Murdoch, in fact, has been dying to get hold of the Journal for years—either that or the Financial Times. In both these prizes, he saw a way to build a financial-news empire, one built on top of broadsheet and newsprint (the scent of which is like jasmine to him) but extending into the electronic realm, where most of his power now resides. By carrying the Journal’s brand into television—his plans to build a competitor to CNBC are well known and advanced—Murdoch could put Dow Jones on firmer financial footing than it has been in a long time. And then there’s the Internet, which I suspect looms even larger in his plans for the company.

Murdoch’s emergence as a Web kingpin is, of course, one of the oddest and least expected developments in recent business history. “Everyone’s getting a bit overexcited by this digital deluge,” he told me once, at the start of the Internet bubble. “Most people just want to sit back and watch—interacting is hard work.” I remember thinking that I’d finally spotted a blind spot in Murdoch. The old guy will never get it, I said to myself, and for a long time, he didn’t. But then he turns around and buys MySpace for what now looks like a song—a genius move that catapulted him ahead of almost every other big-media player in grappling with the Web.

Did anybody at Dow Jones ever contemplate purchasing MySpace? Did Arthur Sulzberger or Don Graham? I don’t know, but I’d wager they didn’t even know what MySpace was. The obvious retort is, Why should they have? What does social networking have to do with journalism? And, no doubt, a precise answer is hard to conjure. But if you don’t believe that the intermingling of these spheres will be central to how future generations consume their news, you’ve apparently been sleeping—and clearly don’t have kids.

Not that Murdoch or his people have the future figured out. But they’re groping toward it with purpose and energy—which is more than you can say for Dow Jones. God knows Murdoch’s politics aren’t my brand of vodka. But you have to admire the way he’s been an unrelenting force for change and modernization in the media racket, the way he’s shaped and adapted to epic transformations of platforms and technologies. The problem with America’s newspaper-family dynasties is that, to a greater or lesser degree, they still believe they’re in the same business they were in 30 years ago. Murdoch doesn’t—and he knows, too, that newspapers can’t be any kind of public trust if the public sees them as yesterday’s news.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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