GQ Revisits Murdoch’s Snatching of the Journal

GQ has the story of the day in the business press—and not just because Audit Chief Dean Starkman and I are quoted in it.

Nate Penn writes an oral history of the Murdoch takeover of The Wall Street Journal and it’s a good one. It puts you inside a newsroom under siege, knowing it was likely at the end of an era, and it captures the total disarray of the company and the Bancroft family that controlled it—a confusion that enabled a shark like Murdoch to pick off a crown jewel of journalism with ease.

It’s important to remember that when you pick up the Journal these days and find a pretty pedestrian newspaper stripped of much of its uniqueness and depth that it didn’t have to be that way, as Daniel Golden says:

I believe that forceful opposition to the sale on the part of the top people would likely have caused the family to rethink. They were casting around in confusion and division for some kind of guidance, and the people who they normally would have turned to sat it out, and so they kind of writhed, and thrashed, and agonized, and moaned in full view of the country. It was not a pretty picture.

One critical factor in the sellout was Dow Jones CEO Richard Zannino, who, unlike his predecessor Peter Kann, who was a Journal creature, had no real connection to the paper. As one anonymous person tells Penn:

Rich Zannino was not well liked in the newsroom. He was actually a figure of some derision. He was not a newspaper person. He was this perpetually tanned—to the point of being nearly orange—guy in perfectly tailored suits in a newsroom that is not known for perfectly tailored suits. What newsroom is? He had a tendency to have one too many buttons undone on his shirt and spoke in corporate-ese. This is of course a newsroom full of business reporters. We pride ourselves on our ability to see through corporate bullshit, and he spoke in nothing but corporate bullshit. Zannino’s money came up quite a bit, the amount that he was potentially going to make in a deal. There was a sense that Murdoch had sat down with Zannino; Zannino sees dollar signs and jumps at the deal. He didn’t have longstanding ties to Dow Jones or loyalty to the Bancrofts or to the Journal. I don’t think anybody ever thought he would stick around after a deal.

This, from another anonymous source (most of the quotes here are on the record), is also important:

A big deal was made at the time, though it wasn’t written about very much, of the fact that Dow Jones used Goldman Sachs for the deal, and Goldman Sachs had historically been NewsCorp’s house bank. Everyone in the deal world talked about it. Everyone. Literally, people, their jaws dropped: “How could you use NewsCorp’s banker to advise Dow Jones?” Zannino in particular came in for a lot of criticism: He handpicked Goldman, and he knew that Goldman would make sure the Dow Jones board would approve the deal.

Read the whole thing if you have any interest at all in The Wall Street Journal or Rupert Murdoch. It makes me eager to read former colleague Sarah Ellison’s book about the whole thing. That’s out next year.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.