Murdoch's mission: Topple the Times

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 2010; 6:45 AM

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 dustup. 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 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.

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