Many analysts were shocked by the $5.6 billion Murdoch paid to acquire the Journal, but any accountant knows that a company’s good name can be worth more than its assets. The quality of the journalism published in the Journal determines its value; it’s the reason people around the world pay for breaking news on its Web site when they can get free news elsewhere. Everyone who cares about newspapers should be pleased that readership at the Journal is up, and there’s no doubt some of Thomson’s changes have helped. But to sustain that success, it would be wise to protect some of the traditions that made the Journal great. Two thousand and nine is, of course, different from the days of Barney Kilgore, but is resurrecting the wire-service model really the answer?
In addition to squandering the Journal’s competitive advantage, News Corp. management is gambling with a critical national resource. It’s a loss to the public when no one is doing the kinds of stories that made the Journal great, whether it’s Susan Faludi on the human cost of the Safeway buyout, James Stewart on insider trading, or Alix Freedman on the tobacco industry. At a moment when capitalism is the most important story going, such work should find readers.
A young Journal reporter, over drinks in a Brooklyn bar, welcomed some of the recent changes at the paper. He enthused over the Web site. He’s glad the paper is reaching a global audience. But he’s not so sure that his new bosses are able stewards of the newspaper’s brand. He ordered another round: “I just hope these people are smart enough to know what not to change.”
* Correction: The original text said the party was in December 2007, four months after the purchase. It was in December 2008, one year after the purchase.