It’s tempting to compare the stalwart behavior of the older generation with the madcap money grab that marked the Bancrofts’ sale in 2007 and see a sad commentary on the decline of the elite stewardship. After all, when Jane Bancroft told the Dow Jones executive, Casey Hogate, during the depths of the Depression to forget the dividend and do the right thing (See Tofel’s biography, page 72), the company was desperate. The WSJ’s circulation was a mere 30,00, down from 50,000 before the Great Crash, and the company even missed payroll. Dow Jones survived, mostly thanks to the brilliant Kilgore, and the Bancrofts were able to hand down to their heirs special “B” shares that gave the family the power, and responsibility, to protect the newspaper from unwanted suitors.
Ironically, as I argued back in ‘07, it was the excessive dividends, paid out year after year to a growing number of Bancroft heirs, that hamstrung the company during a time of media dislocation. Maddeningly, the family stood pat, collecting dividends, while turning away an array of suitable suitors (for background, see this Ken Auletta piece from ‘03). Finally, after the company was dead in the water, Murdoch’s bid came along, and it was a mad dash for gold.
It’s easy to say today, if we had known of rampant hacking and coverups, we would have done something differently. But of course, there was nothing short of a firestorm in 2007 (the best account is Sarah Ellison’s book, which also recounts the family’s bumbling response referred to by Natalie Bancroft above). There’s no need to cite chapter and verse, but no one was more eloquent than their fellow “B” shareholder, James Ottaway [UPDATING: Forgot to mention, he’s now on CJR’s Board of Overseers), who urged the Bancrofts to resist the Murdoch temptation:
I’m arguing that there’s a moral issue here. Rupert Murdoch I admire his business skills, but I despise his journalistic practices, and even if I admire him, I’m concerned, and I think the Bancroft family should be concerned, about what kind of a home News Corp. makes for Dow Jones long-term.
It was because of these very concerns that the Bancrofts insisted, futilely, that the Journal’s editors be protected by that silly committee of luminaries, the agreement running 7,000 words and filed with the SEC. (Breaking Views thinks the committee might yet be a factor, but even it wanted to, and it doesn’t, its mandate is far too narrow—the protection of three Dow Jones editors, and that’s it.)
It’s too late for expressions of shock and regret now. But it is another reminder, if we needed one, how much news ownership matters.