By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Everybody knows the newspaper business is facing, shall we say, a few challenges. Make that a few calamities -- sliding circulation, anemic advertising, the rise of the Internet and the reluctance of Web surfers to attach monetary value to our deathless prose. So when a billionaire mogul with ink in his veins wants to purchase one of the nation's finest (and most perilously challenged) newspapers, bidding two-thirds more than Wall Street says the paper is worth, you'd think the whole industry would be delirious with joy.
But you'd be wrong. Rupert Murdoch tries to buy the Wall Street Journal, and the reaction is as if Lord Voldemort had made an above-market offer for Hogwarts.
This week, members of the Bancroft clan who hold a controlling stake in Dow Jones, the Journal's parent company, are deciding whether to accept Murdoch's money. It's a tough call, but I can tell them with confidence what not to do: The surest way to destroy the great newspaper their family has owned for more than a century would be to seek out some other billionaire, a "white knight" on a valiant steed, to buy the paper instead. If they're going to sell, they almost certainly should sell to Murdoch.
There are two big problems with the "last-minute savior" scenario. One is that supermarket moguls, entertainment moguls and all other moguls differ from newspaper moguls in one important regard: They don't know anything about running newspapers. Whatever you think about Murdoch, there's no denying that he knows, and loves, the newspaper business.
The other problem is that the Journal is worth more money to Murdoch than it is to just about anyone else, because the paper's resources and reputation could greatly enhance his plan for a business-oriented cable network to compete with CNBC -- and also, let's face it, because owning the Journal would feed his ego. Some random white-knight billionaire would also enjoy the ego boost but would see matching Murdoch's generous $5 billion offer as such an overpayment that he or she would immediately begin cutting costs. The Journal's talented staff would almost certainly face buyouts and layoffs, and the paper would suffer.
Murdoch, on the other hand, says he wants to beef up the paper's coverage of politics and government -- something friends of mine in the Journal's Washington bureau have wanted for years.
It's natural that the Bancrofts would be reluctant to sell the company after being such honorable stewards all these years. The family's policy of never interfering with the Journal's news or editorial pages has been truly exemplary. The Bancrofts allowed the Journal to become and remain one of the greatest newspapers in the world.
And it's natural that they would be especially reluctant to sell to Voldemort, I mean Murdoch, who is a very different breed of newspaper owner. He comes out of the rough-and-tumble tabloid tradition -- one of his London tabloids, the Sun, features scantily clad "Page 3 girls." By all reports, he considers late-night meddling phone calls to his editors an owner's natural right. And his Fox News network doesn't live up to its promise of being "fair and balanced."
Most worrisome of all, critics make a compelling case that Murdoch has subordinated journalistic principles to his business imperatives, especially in dealing with China's authoritarian leadership. Murdoch bristles at this allegation, but he has a long way to go to disprove it.
But Murdoch has agreed to a formal arrangement designed to protect the Journal's editorial independence. Is this an iron-clad guarantee? Hardly. My friend Harold Evans, who once edited the Times of London under Murdoch's ownership, wrote in a critical book that "Murdoch issued promises as prudently as the Weimar Republic issued marks."
All of which means that in an ideal world, the Bancrofts wouldn't let Murdoch within a mile of the Journal. But this is hardly an ideal world, as far as the newspaper business is concerned. I'm not one of the doomsayers who see The End of Newspapers As We Know Them lurking around the next corner, but it doesn't take a genius to see that our industry is in the midst of some of that good old "creative destruction" that the Journal's editorial page regularly praises as the engine of capitalism.
Whatever else Rupert Murdoch is, he's not stupid. His tabloids may titillate, but the Times is still a great newspaper. He's an innovator, even if some people don't care for some of his innovations. And in Britain, he has just spent more than $1 billion on -- get this -- new printing presses.
I don't see any realistic choice for the Bancrofts but to take the leap.