Wall St. Journal Makes Politics Its Business

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008

NEW YORK -- The Federal Reserve's effort to rescue Bear Stearns from imminent collapse was a classic Wall Street Journal story, stripped across the top of the front page amid saturation coverage in the paper.

But just below that was a lengthy piece about Barack Obama's national finance chairman, the "petite billionaire" Penny Pritzker, and a dispatch on violent protests in Tibet.

In the four months since Rupert Murdoch took over the nation's leading financial newspaper, the front page has assumed a harder edge, particularly on politics, establishing the Journal as a high-profile player in the presidential campaign.

Murdoch is "clearly interested in challenging the journalistic establishment," says Robert Thomson, the former editor of Murdoch's Times of London, in his first public comments as Journal publisher. "I think American journalism has some soul-searching to do. American newspapers generally have kept up poorly with change. . . . If there's a presumption that what you might call New York Times journalism is the pinnacle of our profession, the profession is in some difficulty."

The swipe at the Times is no accident. Murdoch and his lieutenants, who have made clear they want to challenge the paper for national supremacy, are not above a little trash-talking toward that end.

"Mr. Murdoch wants to see the paper take on added urgency and broaden its areas of coverage," says Marcus Brauchli, the Journal's top editor. "He's very engaged in news. He knows what's going on. He's got good, strong ideas about journalism."

In an interview here in the shadow of Ground Zero, in a building the paper will soon abandon for Murdoch's News Corp. headquarters in Midtown, Brauchli acknowledged that the December takeover caused considerable anxiety. There were predictions that the owner of Fox News might push the news pages at the 2 million-circulation paper to the right or tart it up like his New York Post. Some big-name correspondents bailed out.

"I don't think anyone left us because Rupert Murdoch was coming," Brauchli says. "People left because they got a lot more money. Other companies raided us."

In an era in which newspapers are laying off staff and slashing budgets -- the Journal itself did a round of buyouts last year -- Murdoch is underwriting increased space in the paper and slightly enlarging the 40-person Washington bureau. Brauchli says he expects the newsroom staff of 750, up from 600 two years ago, to grow modestly this year.

Thomson says Murdoch is also opening his checkbook to beef up foreign coverage. "Strategically, Rupert is very much involved," Thomson says. "He loves newspapers. He's passionate about them."

Many current and former staffers are pleased. "Just about everything that's happened so far has been in the right direction," says Paul Steiger, who retired last year as the Journal's top editor. Murdoch "has given them money to expand the news hole and expand staffing. I'm not aware of any bad-Rupert fears manifesting themselves."

The steady flow of campaign stories on the Journal's front page is a departure for a newspaper that built its identity on business coverage, long features and quirky tales known as "A-heds."

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