Media Notes: one editor's balancing act on the high wire of modern journalism
Monday, May 10, 2010
Rupert Murdoch insisted that the Wall Street Journal delay publishing the news that he had just fired its top editor.
"Tell them to hold it until we have a signed deal," Murdoch told a top aide. "They don't answer to News Corp.," Robert Thomson, then the Journal's publisher, explained.
The editor in question was Marcus Brauchli, now executive editor of The Washington Post. And as Sarah Ellison reports in her book "War at the Wall Street Journal," the Journal did wait on the story for several hours -- and got scooped by Time.com.
Ellison's portrait of an editor struggling to balance the needs of his newsroom and a demanding new owner provides a revealing glimpse of how Brauchli copes with adversity. Three months after his ouster in the spring of 2008, he was hired to shrink -- and remake -- The Post's newsroom for a new publisher.
While staying out of the limelight, Brauchli has run two of the country's top newspapers -- including the one you are reading -- in the last three years. His efforts to navigate the minefield that the industry has become are worth examining in an age when editors play a pivotal role in keeping the journalistic ship afloat.
Brauchli declines to discuss his turbulent tenure at the Journal, saying: "I think that year has been abundantly if not excessively described, and I don't really want to revisit it."
Ellison says in an interview that Brauchli was "attempting to bridge an unbridgeable gap between the old culture of the Journal and what Murdoch wanted. . . . It was an impossible situation. Murdoch has a history of wanting to work with people who he knows, who he trusts."
Asked if he sees parallels between the two situations, Brauchli talks of simultaneously serving "your readers, your journalists and your corporate benefactors. Invariably, there's tension among those groups. The role of the editor is to some extent to manage those tensions.
"Probably the most important role of the editor is to create the space for journalists to conduct the best possible journalism and to serve the audience. . . . Clearly when I was considering coming here I was aware of the challenges facing the newspaper industry. But I also recognized in The Post an extraordinary opportunity."
Brauchli, 48, spent a quarter-century at the Journal, much of it overseas, before winning the top editing job right after Murdoch made his bid for the paper. In February 2008, two months before Brauchli was forced out and replaced by Thomson, the longtime Murdoch confidant told him that the media mogul wanted him to move more quickly in changing the paper. "I have to look after the culture and the staff, too," the book quotes Brauchli as responding. "I can't do it all at once. You have to protect me."
"I take a lot of bullets for you, to be honest," Thomson is said to have replied. The Journal declined to comment on Ellison's book.
The book, reported with Brauchli's and Thomson's cooperation, reports that Brauchli's relationship with Murdoch did not get off to the strongest start. After completing his $5 billion takeover of Dow Jones, Murdoch invited Brauchli, whom he had never met, to breakfast or lunch that Friday. Brauchli said he would have to check his calendar and call him back.