May 3 2010

War at the Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle to Control an American Business Empire by Sarah Ellison

Michael Calderone

web exclusive


For Rupert Murdoch, buying the Wall Street Journal wasn't just business; it was personal. That's because with the Journal under his control, Murdoch could finally realize his dream of destroying the New York Times. Murdoch, who started his multibillion-dollar media empire with a couple of Australian papers, has long fought against what he's pegged as the monolithic media establishment—a self-important, liberal elite, bred in the Ivy League and at top journalism schools on the coasts. And believing that inherited wealth can lead to complacency in business and in the newsroom, Murdoch has always been wary of those who have inherited their fortunes (i.e. New York Times scion Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.).

So last week, the swashbuckling septuagenarian finally got his chance to chip away at the Times on its home turf, by staffing up and pumping millions into a New York edition of the Journal, which he hopes will soon be Manhattan's first read and the nation's paper of record. On the evening of the new section's launch, Murdoch boasted about the paper's increased depth at a party filled with local power players, such as mayor Michael Bloomberg and financier Henry Kravis. The Journal, Murdoch said, will be "New Yorkers' essential source of news and information." Even Murdoch's detractors—perhaps nostalgic for a Citizen Kane-style street fight for readers—praise his passion for print in the digital age. Who else would launch an old-fashioned newspaper war in 2010?

Former Journal reporter Sarah Ellison's War at the Wall Street Journal—a detailed and fast-moving account of Murdoch's 2007 deal to acquire Journal-parent company Dow Jones—couldn't have come at a better time, just as Murdoch begins his battle with the Times. While there was plenty of contemporaneous reporting, along with Michael Wolff's probing 2008 book on Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, and a lengthy GQ post-mortem, Ellison's book provides not just a deeply investigated back-story of the deal, but also an insider's perspective. When reports of rifts within the Bancroft family (the paper's long-time stewards) appeared in the Jourrnal's pages, it was often under Ellison's byline.

Covering one's employer is never easy: reporters need to avoid looking like they're carrying water for the company brass or being a newsroom snitch. During the summer of 2007, Ellison walked that line deftly, breaking plenty of news as the deal unfolded day by day. In her new volume, she's mined her contacts for great fly-on-the-wall quotes from inside the paper, like Murdoch bellowing: "We're going to build a fucking great paper and I do not give a fuck what New York or the media has to say about it! We'll build the world's best paper!"

Unlike Wolff, who spent an unprecedented fifty hours with Murdoch, Ellison doesn't try to get into the mogul's head. Instead, she details precisely how he plotted the Dow deal years before dropping an unsolicited five-billion dollar bid on the Bancrofts—many of whom were horrified at the idea of Murdoch getting his hands on the paper. The newsroom's fear of Murdoch's meddling led to an "editorial independence" agreement, which anyone who has followed Murdoch's career doesn't put much stock in. Not surprisingly, Journal managing editor Marcus Brauchli was squeezed out about four months after the deal closed, with Murdoch favorite Robert Thomson taking the top newsroom job.

Still, from a business standpoint, purchasing Dow Jones may have been a mistake. Indeed, Murdoch's News Corporation took a three-billion-dollar write-down on the paper, leading one current senior executive to tell New York magazine that it "was the worst deal [Murdoch] ever did." Of course, it's unlikely that anyone could have stopped Murdoch, who explained his ambition to Brauchli: "The New York Times sets the national agenda, and we should." It remains to be seen whether Murdoch will succeed, but either way, the JournalTimes battle should provide Ellison with plenty of material for an intriguing sequel.

Michael Calderone is the media writer for Yahoo! News and previously covered the press for the New York Observer and Politico.

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6:39 am

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