Murdoch purchase of Wall Street Journal complete?
by Shai Sachs, Sat Jul 07, 2007 at 05:09:45 AM EDT
Allegedly, the main point of contention in the negotiations between Murdoch and the current owners of Dow Jones (the super-old money Bancroft family) is editorial independence. The Bancrofts claim they want the paper to remain editorially independent. Murdoch is famous for reaching his tentacles directly into the newsroom, using his papers to settle personal vendettas, and worse. Apparently, a deal has been struck whereby Murdoch's News Corp. will have very limited influence over WSJ (the ability to hire and fire the editor and publisher, subject to approval of an independent board.)
The Journal's op-ed pages are already famously conservative, nearly to the point of lunacy. The paper's reporting, on the other hand, is considered top-notch. The Journal has the second-highest circulation in the country (second to USA Today, ahead of the New York Times) and is considered highly reputable and influential. How will this change if Murdoch takes over? What can progressives expect the new media landscape to look like?
In recent months, many have speculated about Murdoch's motivations for buying the Journal. Some argue that he wants to have a nationally respected paper under his wing, in order to boost his platform and gain respect; others suggest that he plans to use the WSJ to prop up the forthcoming Fox Business Channel (a competitor to CNBC); finally, some think that he thinks he can extract higher profits from the Journal than the Bancrofts can, or that he can do something interesting with the Journal's online news (which is currently subscribers-only). Given the enormous size of Murdoch's bid - $5 billion - I think the first two motivations are most likely on the mark. Murdoch wishes to boost his national profile, and at the same time, he wants to ensure the success of the new Fox Business News Channel.
I don't buy for a second the notion that Murdoch really will keep his word and stay out of WSJ's editorial decisions, and I don't think the Bancrofts do, either. I think they want to cash out, and they are quasi-publicly negotiating over editorial independence to save face. It seems fairly probable to me that the WSJ's much-ballyhooed reporting will soon be history. It's hard to see the Journal taking on the tabloid format and sensational focus of some of Murdoch's other properties (although News Hounds thinks otherwise), but I think it's safe to say that editorial decisions in the news sections will soon be driven by a right-wing bias.
The changes at WSJ will almost certainly be a loss for the public at large, but I'm not sure it'll be a loss for the progressive movement. As things currently stand, the WSJ is a source of excellent reporting - and a force of the conservative movement. The excellent reporting helps the paper's shrill and conservative op-ed page gain reputation and respect. If the Journal becomes just another Murdoch property, whose news is untrustowrthy and driven by personal and political considerations, what will happen to its reputation? I think the reputation will plummet, and the op-ed page will lose influence alongside it. At the end of the day, this sale could actually help progressives, by muting a reputable and highly biased conservative op-ed voice.
I'm also interested to see what influence the addition of the Wall Street Journal to the Murdoch family will have on other News Corp. holdings, in particular Fox Business News. I don't have much of a grasp on business news channels, and I can't say exactly what viewers are looking for. I'm sure CNBC is nervous about competition from Fox Business News, and I'm sure that more than a few people over there are losing a lot of sleep this weekend over the allegedly completed purchase.
Then again, I wonder just how much of the Fox brand the average business news consumer can take? Taking a look at Fox's current business news offerings, Cavuto & Your World, News Hounds consistently finds Cavuto's shows to be sensationalist, driven by sex appeal and, perhaps worst of all, deceptive about economic news. In a discovery that will shock almost no one, News Hounds also found Fox's business news analysts interpreting economic news through a political lens shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings.
Business news is a very different beast from political news. By all indications, News Corp. treats them as essentially the same - two avenues for getting out Murdoch's message. But is that really going to float? Don't business news consumers want news that will actually help them, you know, make money? Not get their conservative talking points? Fox Business News and the Wall Street Journal might be successful together for a little while, but I think most of that success will be driven by the Journal's reputation and Fox's existing audience share; I find it hard to believe that the actual news on the channel would be compelling enough to earn its own audience. In other words, the early success will not be self-sustaining. At a minimum, these developments leave an opening for CNBC or a new business news channel to exploit: compete with Fox Business on the merits. Give business news consumers a reason to switch the channel and get more reliable news elsewhere.
It's hard to predict the future, and most of this post has been nothing but unvarnished speculation. I'd like to believe that a News Corp. purchase of the Wall Street Journal would actually help progressives in a roundabout way, but who really knows? Regardless, media companies should look at this development with an eye towards competitive opportunity. If the WSJ becomes just another Murdoch property, and Fox Business News becomes yet another shrill cable news channel bleating patriotic jingoism, what opportunities are left open? How can other media companies fill the vacuum that Murdoch is creating?
Full disclosure: a friend of mine works at CNBC.