Murdoch’s Unhealthy Obsession

Taking on The New York Times isn't risk-free for the Journal

Richard Pérez-Peña has several interesting bits in his piece on the soon-to-commence Battle for New York between his own New York Times and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.

As I said the other day, the last thing we need right now is a newspaper war, especially between the country’s last two giants standing. But it’s been hard to tell if Murdoch wants the Times to die so that the Journal might live or if he just wants the Times dead. This quote points to the latter:

Sure enough, in the News Corporation’s planning discussions about the local New York section, the talk has been less about what The Journal would gain than about “killing The New York Times,” according to several people with direct knowledge of the preparations, who asked for anonymity to discuss what are supposed to be secret matters. “It’s not an economic decision,” one of them said.

Indeed, Murdoch has long taken big losses on his major papers to advance his power. The Times of London has been a perennial money-loser, though this pre-Murdoch Journal story says it was headed toward profitability in the months before the crisis, under Robert Thomson, (UPDATE: Or not! The Telegraph says today that the Times lost a staggering $132 million last year and $75 million in 2008, the year it was supposed to turn profitable.) and now editor of the Journal. The New York Post has lost tens of millions of dollars annually for years and, now that Murdoch has a much more powerful platform, seems like a dead paper walking.

Topping the news here, which the NYT credits to Sarah Ellison’s forthcoming book, is the report that the Journal lost a whopping $80 million last (fiscal) year. That isn’t all a function of the economy. To put it in context, the NYT itself made $21 million in 2009.

How long will Murdoch be willing (or able) to subsidize such losses at two newspapers?

Seeing this, Business Insider editor and CEO Henry Blodget (h/t Heidi Moore) notes that:

* The New York Times has 1,100 journalists, circulation of 900,000, and an operating profit of $21 million (in 2009)

* The Wall Street Journal has 750 journalists, circulation of 2 million, and an operating loss of $80 million (year through June, 2009)

That’s helpful. But then Blodget falls flat on his face with this leap of financial logic:

The WSJ appears to pay its journos a lot more than the New York Times

First of all, I’ll bet you anything that isn’t true (UPDATE: And so will my fellow Journal alum Heidi Moore). The Times doesn’t hire kids out of college for $30,000 to $40,000 a year like the Journal has a habit of doing (and did with me!). The Times starts at roughly twice that. Also, journalists have long had a habit of going from the Journal to the Times. Rarely do they go the other way. One reason for that is pay.

But more importantly, you can’t make the deduction Blodget, a former Wall Street analyst, does with the limited data points he has. The most glaring absence here is revenue. You just can’t guess about salaries like he does here without revenue numbers, and the Times brings in far, far more revenue per reader than the Journal does.

For one, the Times gets about $600 a year in circulation revenue for each unit of circulation, subscription or newsstand. News Corporation doesn’t break out these numbers, but it’s doubtful the Journal gets a quarter of that per head. A subscription to the print paper costs $119 a year (less if online only), and if you’re like me, you get your WSJ paper with airline miles equivalent to about $40.

Then there’s that whole Sunday paper thing. The Times has one, and the Journal doesn’t. The Times’s ad pages dwarf the Journal’s.

Point being, if you have a lot more revenue, you can employ a lot more journalists even while paying them the same—or more.

This passage in the Times story also jumps out at me, implying as it does that Murdoch is playing dirty:

In addition to the ad battle between the papers, Mr. Murdoch’s two New York-based papers, the serious broadsheet Journal and the scrappy tabloid Post, are making a major push for joint ad sales, despite their different readerships — in fact, advertisers say they have been offered deep discounts on Post ads if they buy ads in The Journal.

An important player in The Journal’s plans is Paul V. Carlucci, publisher of The Post and chief of another News Corporation unit, News America Marketing. Mr. Carlucci, a longtime Murdoch loyalist, keeps a low profile but is well known as a skilled, bare-knuckled operator in the world of ad sales. Though he has no formal role in Dow Jones, officials there often consult with him and even report to him.

In several lawsuits, other companies have accused News America Marketing of unfair business practices. The News Corporation ended one case last year by buying the competitor who had filed suit, and this year it paid $500 million to settle a group of other cases.

Within the News Corporation, said one executive who has worked with Mr. Carlucci, “there are no points lost for making mistakes if you are being aggressive.”

Murdoch’s move doesn’t have to be all about the kill, though. The Times is advertising that it has more than twice as many “business professionals” readers in New York City as the Journal. These people’s attention, an ever-dwindling resource, is worth a lot of money.

But it seems unlikely to us that largely liberal New York Times readers are going to peel away in droves to go read a Murdoch newspaper with an edit page slightly to the right of Milton Friedman and news pages that have noticeably moved rightward since he took over (just last week, the paper ran a thinly supported story—one that raised some eyebrows internally—on page one tying Obama to Al Sharpton, who in case readers didn’t get the picture, has a “wavy bouffant and medallion necklaces” in the lede). As Tunku Vardarajan tells the NYT:

“A great deal would have to change for The Journal to appeal to the average Times reader as a substitute,” said Tunku Varadarajan, a business professor at New York University who writes for The Daily Beast blog and is a former assistant managing editor of The Journal. “The justification isn’t obvious to me.”

My guess: It’s a power thing.

More importantly, two million people have subscribed to The Wall Street Journal over the years because it was The Wall Street Journal—not because it was the NYT or the Financial Times. As long as additional features don’t take away from the paper’s core emphasis, then they’re fine.

But many of Murdoch’s moves have been to de-Journalize the Journal, sexing up headlines, cutting story length, diluting depth, adding more stock photos and commodity news, going to straight-news ledes, replacing much of the masthead with non-WSJers, and heading generally to the more slap-dash, once-over-lightly British model.

Remember, Murdoch is a guy who thought about taking the words “Wall Street” out of the paper’s name.

There’s a danger here, but it may not be just for the Times.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.