The New York Times does a nice job keeping an eye on its downtown rival this morning, reporting interesting details on why News Corp. investors do not love newspapers as much as Rupert Murdoch does and are especially not fond of Murdoch’s epic 2007 deal to buy Dow Jones & Co.
[H]is lifelong fondness for newspapers has become a significant drag on the fortunes of his company, the News Corporation.
The company recently took $8.4 billion in write-downs, including $3 billion on its newspaper unit, which includes The Journal’s publisher, Dow Jones & Company. Meanwhile, the News Corporation’s stock price has fallen by two-thirds in the last year, a sharper decline than at media conglomerate peers like Time Warner and Viacom.
The Times piece, to borrow a phrase from another News Corp. unit, is fair and balanced. On the one hand, the Journal’s revenue is off more than other News Corp. newspapers; a bit of nifty calculating here by Times reporters Tim Arango and Richard Perez-Pena:
The company revealed in a later filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that Dow Jones had $535 million in revenue in the last quarter, more than one-third of the total for its newspaper segment. Subtracting the effect of Dow Jones, revenue at that segment fell about 25 percent — partly because of weaker currencies in Britain and Australia, where the News Corporation has many papers — compared with an 11 percent drop for the rest of the company.
On the other hand, subscriptions are holding firm:
In another area, however, The Journal has outperformed almost all its competitors by maintaining its paid circulation of more than two million, in print and online, in the most recent reporting periods, while nearly every other major paper showed declines. Some of those subscribers receive only the online version, making The Journal one of the few papers to successfully make its online readers pay for content.
On the third hand, there may be some discounting going on:
Some of that success, however, could be the result of heavy discounting, a practice that has increased since the News Corporation’s takeover. According to the most recent figures the paper filed with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, for the six months that ended Sept. 30, on an average day The Journal sold 501,000 copies at less than half the basic price, up from 420,000 in the same period in 2007, and 214,000 in 2006.
What I think might be the best news for readers, however, is this bit: It seems News Corp. has succeeded somewhat in breaking up the stultifying, anxiety-ridden culture that prevailed at my old paper in the waning years of the ancien regime, one that was utterly toxic for stories and other living things:
But some journalists also described a certain relief that the new regime has meant an end to the factionalism and politicking of Dow Jones’s last independent years. Reporters and editors also say that Mr. Murdoch and his crew have loosened what was once an exceedingly careful culture, where multiple, lengthy memos were required to begin a reporting project, and an article went through several rounds of editing.
“There’s this kind of attitude that planning is overrated, and memos are for wimps,” said one Journal reporter, who insisted on anonymity for fear of antagonizing his new bosses. “They aren’t as interested in the time-consuming, in-depth projects, either.”
That’s good and bad news, of course. Free-wheeling is good; the lack of interest in in-depth is bad. But you can’t have great instances of the latter without the former. So it’s a start.
The Journal’s journalism under News Corp. has developed, I believe, a creeping case of A.D.D., a lack of discipline and patience that has particularly hurt its crisis coverage, as I’ve written. Let’s hope News Corp. keeps the good energy from its own culture while coming to understand where the Journal’s greatness came from and what made the paper so danged valuable in the first place.Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.