By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010; C01
NEW YORK It is an incursion onto their home turf, where they field the largest team, where they toppled the last governor and knocked the current one out of the race. But publicly, at least, New York Times executives appear unworried about the Wall Street Journal's plan to ramp up its Big Apple coverage.
"We never take competition lightly," says Executive Editor Bill Keller. "We thrive on it."
"We're confident in who we are," says Times President Scott Heekin-Canedy.
But the Journal's decision to add a New York section to its edition here is more than just a local dust-up. Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Journal more than two years ago and loves to rattle his rival, is engaged in a form of psychological warfare.
"It's an obsession," says Michael Wolff, who interviewed Murdoch extensively for a 2008 biography. "It's a white-whale thing with him. I'd say he spends a decent part of every day plotting against the New York Times."
The News Corp. chairman, whose properties include Fox News and the New York Post, delights in painting the Times as elitist and out of touch. "We believe that in its pursuit of journalism prizes and a national reputation," he said recently, "a certain other New York daily has essentially stopped covering the city the way it once did."
At a time of industry retrenchment, Murdoch is spending $15 million -- and hiring 35 journalists -- to launch what he calls a "feisty" daily section later this month. The eight-to-16-page section will cover local politics, business, culture, real estate, high society and sports -- including beat writers assigned to the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets and Knicks. The paper is even hiring a congressional correspondent to follow the New York delegation.
"We've treated the Journal's challenge as an occasion to fortify our news report with some new beats, including one on private schools," says Keller, who has also lured a culture reporter from the Journal. "We'll be adding some new weekend-oriented features to the Thursday and Friday papers. That said, when you count our Metro staff along with reporters assigned to New York culture, sports, real estate, dining and business, we have overwhelming advantages in talent, experience and space devoted to the New York region."
Whatever the Times' journalistic throw-weight, the Journal's effort could siphon off some local advertising dollars. But with 15 percent of the Journal's circulation in this area, the impact is likely to be modest.
The Journal tried regional content with six weekly sections, in such states as Florida and Texas, before abandoning them in 2000. "Readers liked them -- they always got great grades in focus groups -- but they didn't move the needle on circulation," says former Journal managing editor Paul Steiger.
"Bill Keller's got a big Metro staff and lots of strength in areas where the Journal is going to attack," Steiger says. "But as we've seen with Politico attacking The Washington Post, when you're in a position of being able to do journalistic guerrilla warfare, you can't say what the impact is going to be."
The newspaper company run by Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has launched a marketing campaign boasting of its circulation advantages against the Journal, but it has also faced its share of financial difficulties. The Times laid off 100 newsroom staffers last year, mortgaged its new Manhattan headquarters and borrowed $250 million from controversial Mexican financier Carlos Slim.
"The Times is highly vulnerable," Wolff says. "It's vulnerable from a cash perspective, and I think they're journalistically vulnerable."
Murdoch, for his part, had to take a $3 billion write-down last year on his newspaper division, which includes the Journal, suggesting that he seriously overpaid when he bought Dow Jones for $5 billion.
Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson, a Murdoch confidant brought in from another News Corp. property, the Times of London, declined to be interviewed. He is, like his boss, a native of Australia and has criticized the Times as politically "skewed."
Thomson has gradually transformed the nation's preeminent business publication into more of a general-interest newspaper. By edging toward more political and cultural stories and away from its laserlike focus on corporate America, some Journal insiders say, the paper is relinquishing its core franchise. Other staffers, impressed by Murdoch's investments in the paper, have come to believe that he isn't just pursuing a vanity play. While the Journal was once content to be a second read, Steiger says, "in the current print environment, you have to think of becoming a first read for at least some of your audience."
Nationally, the Journal has more than twice the circulation, just over 2 million, to 928,000 for the Times. In New York, according to Times figures, 16 percent of its readers also get the Journal during the week.
"We're strong in New York and always have been," Heekin-Canedy says. "Our readers across the country come to us in part for the New York take on the world. We have a great audience that our advertisers recognize as superior in so many ways."
The Times' once-plodding Metro section has become more aggressive in the past decade, spearheading investigations of Gov. David Paterson, former governor Eliot Spitzer and Rep. Charlie Rangel. The Journal, for its part, is hiring several staffers from the New York Sun, a feisty, right-leaning daily that folded its print edition in 2008.
Those who know Murdoch say he is still steamed about the Times' coverage of his bid to buy the Journal's parent company. One 2007 Times editorial on the owners weighing the sale declared that if Murdoch continued his meddling ways, the Bancrofts "would not simply be cashing in the family business; they would be endangering one of the best newspapers in the world."
But the still-energetic Murdoch, whose love of newspapers is such that he is willing to lose millions of dollars on them, as he does with the tabloid Post, is 79. His eventual successor, whether it is his son James or another family member, may not want to continue such subsidies.
For now, the Murdoch team can't resist poking the Times family in the eye. Late last month, the Weekend Journal section ran a feature on women who prefer feminine-looking men -- and the photo collage included the bottom portion of Sulzberger's face. Heekin-Canedy wouldn't go near that one, saying: "We don't engage in that."