The Rupert Watch

How to read The Wall Street Journal now

Well, they were not the Chandlers of Los Angeles, who couldn’t sell their journalistic birthright fast enough. Nor were they the Sulzbergers of New York, who have so far closed ranks to protect theirs, thank God. They were the Bancrofts, somewhere in between-divided, muddled, paying the price for past diffidence, high- and low-minded all at once. The cynics told us it was inevitable that they would sell once $5 billion was on the table. It was never inevitable. But they did sell.

So now we have to live with it. Here comes Rupert Murdoch, a man who already had altogether too much media power, as the owner of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. Now what?

The news is not 100 per cent awful. For journalists, Murdoch in some ways represents what we have all been praying for-an owner willing to invest in the product, one who is not addicted to rising quarterly profit margins, an owner who has a vision of a print-Web future that can sustain the expensive business of journalism and who is willing to lose some money in order to get across the dark valley to that bright mountain.

He’ll bring some energy and competitive fire. If I were The New York Times, I would be nervous. Murdoch seems to want a more general audience, and has openly mused about heavier national coverage and, especially, Washington coverage in the Journal. (And he’ll probably discount his advertising, opening a national-newspaper price war). For us readers, new competition at that level could be a very good thing.

But the news is 90 percent bad news nonetheless, because Rupert is Rupert. As we have said in many ways, in 700 words and in 7,000 words Murdoch has a lengthy record—on four continents—of bending his journalism to political power in order to incur government and regulatory favor. And as our Dean Starkman (a former Journal reporter himself ) has said in any number of lengths, a great national treasure is at stake. The Journal is not merely for investors; it explains the workings of capitalism for all of us, including those without investment dollars. It throws some of the smartest reporters in the world at some of the most complex and significant situations and issues society has to offer.

Jack Shafer in Slate predicts that Murdoch will quickly foul his new nest and move on. The record suggests that this is quite possible. But we think Shafer is wrong, at least about the quickly part.

The Journal’s new editor, Marcus Brauchli, told his staff that “a change in ownership won’t change our understanding of what is important.” One reason to hope that is true is that Brauchli and other editors at the Journal have significant power of their own- not from the piece of paper that the Bancrofts got Murdoch to sign to protect the newspaper’s independence, but from their willingness to go public and quit if Murdoch starts self-dealing with the news. We’ll put some faith in that.

The Journal’s credibility is the reason that it is valuable. If its readers, especially its many investor-class Wall Street readers, start to sniff out that the news in the paper about, say, China, is not straight, that it smells of hidden agendas, they’ll move to The Financial Times faster than you can click a mouse. They want to make money and they want the straight story. If Murdoch follows his pattern of bending to power at the Journal, he’ll have to do it very slowly and very subtly. We’re all watching.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.