Remaking The Journal
In the last few months, Rupert Murdoch has moved into an office at Dow Jones & Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal. He has pushed the paper’s editors for shorter articles and more hard news. He has personally wooed reporters he wants to keep out of his competitors’ hands.
And last week, he oversaw the replacement of top executives, including The Journal’s publisher, with his own lieutenants.
And he hasn’t even bought the company yet.
That will change on Thursday, when in all likelihood shareholders will vote to approve the sale of Dow Jones to Mr. Murdoch’s company, the News Corporation. But Mr. Murdoch has already seized the reins of Dow Jones and The Journal, setting in motion what amounts to an overhaul of the look, content and staff of one of the world’s most prized newspapers.
“He’s not wasting any time,” said one Dow Jones executive who, like most of the people interviewed, asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the changes being made. “He’s already calling the shots, making decisions. We know that’s his M.O., but it’s amazing to see.”
For The Journal’s editors and reporters, this is a time of both anxiety and anticipation about what will happen when more than a century of independent family ownership reaches its end.
During the protracted takeover battle last spring and summer, many of them expressed concern that Mr. Murdoch would shape The Journal’s news pages to promote his own business and political interests — a News Corporation practice that The Journal itself documented in a long article — or simply cheapen the august paper.
But Mr. Murdoch also pledged to open the purse strings to expand The Journal’s reach, a prospect many people welcome at a newspaper with years of stagnant advertising revenue. Already, The Journal has offered significant raises to journalists it wants to hire and to some who were considering leaving the paper, with Mr. Murdoch calling some reporters personally to ask them to stay.
Mr. Murdoch has said that he wanted The Journal to step up its coverage of politics and national and international affairs, making it a more direct competitor to The New York Times. He has lobbied for more hard news and more succinct articles — a marked shift in tone for a newspaper whose signatures include long, often quirky news features that start on the front page.
There has even been talk of a front page with articles short enough to start and end there rather than continuing on inside pages, and of taking the words “Wall Street” out of the paper’s name to give it broader appeal, according to people who have been briefed on the matter. Both ideas were quickly dismissed, but the fact that they were raised even semiseriously shows how unconstrained by tradition the new owner is, these people said.
“This kind of decisiveness and moving rapidly, not just at the top but deep into the organization, is unusual in media takeovers,” said Louis Ureneck, chairman of the journalism department at Boston University. “There tends to be some patience about getting to know the operation and making a smooth transition. But he’s operating like a young man who’s bought a sports car and can’t wait to hop in and drive it around.”
None of that should be surprising from Mr. Murdoch, who is known for being sure of what he wants to do with each of his many properties — often molding them to reflect his own views and wasting no time in doing it. His habit of detailed, personal control contrasts starkly with decades of hands-off ownership by the Bancroft family, which viewed almost any involvement as unethical meddling.
The takeover puts vast resources behind a newspaper that is marginally profitable at best, in part because it has defied the industry trends of cutting staff and circulation. The News Corporation has $29 billion in annual revenue compared with $2 billion for Dow Jones, and Mr. Murdoch has shown repeatedly that he is willing to invest in his properties — even to take heavy losses on some of them — in order to win audiences and advertisers away from their competitors.
With a bodyguard and his longtime secretary in tow — as well as the occasional News Corporation executive — Mr. Murdoch has been a frequent presence in Dow Jones offices, meeting with executives, the editorial page editor of The Journal, Paul Gigot and, in the main newsroom two floors below, Marcus W. Brauchli, the managing editor.
In a handful of walks through the newsroom and a visit to The Journal’s printing plant in South Brunswick, N.J., Mr. Murdoch, 76, has revealed little about his intentions, employees say. But they add that at each stop, he has asked questions about their work and displayed an astonishing command of detail about what they do, from production schedules to running the presses.
There are already firm plans to eliminate The Journal’s Marketplace section, containing articles on business trends and technology, in the first half of next year, with a new section taking its place, according to people at Dow Jones and the News Corporation who have been briefed on the changes. The editor of Marketplace, Melinda Beck, recently left that post to write a column on health, and no replacement has been named.
There are also plans to replace dozens of the newsroom staff, while other personnel changes reflecting Mr. Murdoch’s priorities have already begun, including building up the Washington bureau and shopping for reporters and editors to hire away from The Journal’s competitors.
When the takeover battle was under way last spring and summer, some of The Journal’s reporters and editors accused Mr. Murdoch of shaping his company’s journalism to reflect his own interests. Such criticism became far more muted as the takeover approached. There is anxiety about changes, real or rumored, tempered by optimism.
“I think there are a whole span of people who say, ‘Hey, let’s see what he does, let’s give it a chance,’” said Byron Calame, a former deputy managing editor of The Journal who has also served as the public editor of The Times. “The idea that there might be more assets, more resources put into the news-gathering gives some people hope.”
Mr. Murdoch has acted like a man in a hurry since the end of July, when the controlling Bancroft family agreed to sell him Dow Jones for more than $5 billion. Days after the family’s decision, Mr. Murdoch had an office built for him in the 11th floor executive suite in the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan where Dow Jones is headquartered.
Within weeks, teams of executives and managers from the two companies were meeting to compare advertising strategies, look for joint ventures and to debate the future of The Journal’s paid online subscription system, which Mr. Murdoch dislikes.
Indeed, Mr. Murdoch, who tends to muse out loud about big ideas that might be dropped later, told investors in Australia and one of his newspapers there that he would stop charging readers of The Journal’s online site, WSJ.com, but the statement came as a surprise to executives at both companies who later said they did not believe a final decision had been made.
People close to top Dow Jones executives say that it has been made clear to them that they would be replaced almost immediately either to consolidate operations with the News Corporation or to put Murdoch loyalists in control, or both. The first confirmation came last week, when Dow Jones announced that Richard F. Zannino, the chief executive officer, and L. Gordon Crovitz, the publisher of The Journal, would leave their posts.
The Journal will dismiss two to three dozen people on its news staff of about 750, probably through buyouts, officials at both companies say. The aim is not to reduce head count, which could actually increase, but to make room for a wave of hiring in areas Mr. Murdoch wants to expand and in some cases, simply to be rid of people.
Since last summer, at least 10 reporters and editors have left the paper, and some of their jobs remain vacant. Many more, concerned about the paper’s new direction, have reached out to other publications about job prospects.
A year from now the newspaper could have a large contingent of reporters and editors hired under Mr. Murdoch and not rooted in The Journal’s traditions. They would also be people who did not live through the anxious months when many newsroom employees opposed the takeover and questioned Mr. Murdoch’s journalistic ethics. “It has the makings of a pretty big cultural shift,” a veteran reporter said.
An agreement between Mr. Murdoch and the Bancrofts gives Mr. Brauchli, the top newsroom executive, total control over most of the newspaper’s content, and over newsroom hiring, firing and job assignments — at least in theory. But experts have predicted that with control of The Journal’s budget, Mr. Murdoch would eventually hold sway over the newsroom.
People who work with Mr. Brauchli say that some of the changes contemplated or under way might have occurred even without the takeover — including the recent appearance of more hard news and political news on the front page — and that in some areas he agrees with Mr. Murdoch’s agenda. But they also concede that the future owner’s influence is powerful, his stamp unmistakable.
A number of Mr. Brauchli’s recent personnel moves align with the new priorities.
Several highly regarded reporters and editors are being relocated to The Journal’s bureau in Washington, including a new chief of the bureau, John Bussey. Gerald F. Seib’s column on Washington, Capitol Journal, is being revived.
The Journal has been hiring new reporters and has made lucrative offers to a number of prominent journalists at The Times and elsewhere, mostly unsuccessfully.
The Journal has lost some big names, like Henny Sender, a prominent reporter who went to The Financial Times. But so far, the departures do not amount to a large-scale defection.
“A lot of us are at least a little worried about what this place will become,” said one veteran reporter at The Journal. “But right now our attitude is, wait and see.”