Why wait for Rupert Murdoch to complete his purchase of Dow Jones and let him ruin its Wall Street Journal? As long as the paper is doomed to the editorial mediocrity that is Murdoch’s hallmark, the staff should torch the joint before he gets a chance to sully it. And sully it, he will. A story on Page One of today’s Wall Street Journal illustrates how Murdoch and his praetorian guard shaped “coverage decisions that advanced the interests of his sprawling media conglomerate.”
As satisfying as dynamiting Journal headquarters just as Murdoch arrives to take custody might be, I recommend a subtler strategy of creative destruction. The peach-colored Financial Times, one of the Wall Street Journal’s competitors, should raid the Journal and in one swoop steal 100 of its best reporters and editors.
If poaching of a few of the Wall Street Journal’s 700 reporters and editors by Condé Nast’s Portfolio is considered news, imagine the stir the pillaging of the Journal newsroom by the FT would create. Grand talent raids are common in the law biz, where ambitious firms cripple competitors by looting, say, an entire tax division, and having the defectors bring their clients with them.
The London-based FT moves about 140,000 copies a day in the United States compared to the Wall Street Journal’s 2 million. The FT could stand to win hundreds of thousands of new readers if it made a highly visible raid on the Journal—none of this one-or-two-Journal-staffers-at-a-time stuff—and promised to uphold the pre-Murdoch Journal’s reputation for excellence, accuracy, and integrity.
If you estimate an average head-count cost of $200,000-$250,000 for each purloined Journalist, the FT would be adding $25 million or so to its editorial budget. That looks like a lot, but it’s far from the $5 billion Murdoch has bid for all of Dow Jones. Of course, many of the Journal’s most talented will be booking departures upon the arrival of Rupert Murdoch. But if a great mass of them left at the same time for the FT,the raid could cut into Journal circulation. I imagine the FT placing full-page ads in the New York Times business section like this:
Do you miss reading Wall Street Journal All-Stars David Wessel, Walt Mossberg, Amy Marcus, Greg Ip, John Harwood, and Monica Langley? They—and others—have found a new home at the Financial Times. Why don’t you join them?
Who, exactly, should the FT steal? We can agree to disagree about specific names. Some of the people on my list might not be on yours. And nobody should feel slighted if they’re not on my list, as the point of this exercise is to demonstrate that the Bancrofts don’t make the Journal what it is, the people who work there do. If Murdoch succeeds in acquiring the Wall Street Journal but is denied its best journalists, his prize will be hollow. Not being the sentimental sort, I wouldn’t mind if he started running Lotto and Page 3 girl photos in the Murdoch Street Journal, just as long as I could get Journal-style journalism elsewhere.
And so, to the list.
First among the first:If the FT raiding party doesn’t capture David Wessel, the Journal’s Washington deputy bureau chief and economics columnist (“Capital”), it shouldn’t bother to return. Also marked for abduction: Special-projects editor Mark Maremont and his Boston wrecking crew (Steve Stecklow, James Bandler, and Charles Forelle). They won this year’s public service Pulitzer for their stock-options stories. Monica Langley and Laurie P. Cohen are a pair of investigative aces that can beat anybody else’s full house. Roger Thurow sustains the Journal’s tradition of great feature writing.
They’ve got the beat:Susan Pulliam and Randall Smith can be trusted to put the Street in the Wall Street Journal. Daniel Golden hauled in a 2004 Pulitzer for his education stories. Amy Dockser Marcus’ work on health and medicine won a 2005 Pulitzer. Dennis K. Berman makes the dangerous world of murders and acquisitions—I mean, mergers and acquisitions—safe to read. For politics and government coverage, I admire David Rogers and John Harwood. For the Fed, Greg Ip. Glenn Simpson excels on the weird-money beat. Karen Richardson beats the hell out Warren Buffett.
Profiles in courage:I’d give slots to the half-dozen Journal China correspondents who sent a letter to the Bancroft family asking them to keep the paper out of Murdoch’s mitts. One way to read the document is as an advance resignation letter addressed to Murdoch. They are Gordon Fairclough, Mei F. Fong, James T. Areddy, Shai Oster, Jane Spencer, Andrew Batson, and Jason S.L. Leow. Several of them shared this year’s Pulitzer for international reporting.
Don’t forget the editors:Dan Kelly and Jonathan Kaufman for their laborson Page One; Bryan Gruley in Chicago; Emily Nelson in London; Rebecca Blumenstein in China; Gary Putka in Boston; and Gerald F. Seib in Washington.
The king of everything:If “Personal Technology” columnist Walt Mossberg agreed to join the walk to the FT, Murdoch would blow a ventricle and a bladder. Of course, Mossberg would have to take a 50 percent pay cut, which would bring him down to about $500,000, if The New Yorker’s report of his compensation can be believed.
Who have I forgotten? Jonathan Eig, Farnaz Fassihi, John R. Wilke, Joel Millman, Jesse Drucker, Joshua Harris Prager, David Armstrong, John R. Emshwiller, Lee Gomes, Jeanne Dugan, Laura Landro, and Marilyn Chase. The list goes on and on. Dive into the Journal talent pool for yourself and see if you can reach bottom. Maybe the FT should hire the best 200 from the Journal.
Although he’s 76 years old, Rupert Murdoch says he intends to run his News Corp. dynasty for another 20 years, and having swindled Satan in a pact, he may never die. But if he does, and the News Corp. house of cards crashes, who will inherit the Wall Street Journal? Who will even bother to tell the lies about respecting the newspaper, as Murdoch has? Tycoons in training James and Lachlan? Daughter Elisabeth? Wife Wendi? If Murdoch doesn’t throttle the Journal, his heirs will.
If Murdoch cared about the sort of high-quality journalism the Wall Street Journal produces, why hasn’t he dedicated his millions to producing more of it inside his own media empire? Because quality journalism—the sort that angers advertisers, infuriates corporations, and outrages government—is alien to Murdoch.
All Murdoch really wants to do, as Allan Sloan points out in Newsweek, is extract the stored value in the brand names Dow Jones, Barron’s, and Wall Street Journal for his planned business channel. He’ll be the one killing the Journal. Siphoning off its talent to the Financial Times will only hasten the process.
Open letter to the Financial Times staff: I like you, too. I even subscribe. But my mind belongs to the Wall Street Journal. You’ve got to admit, 100 of the best Journal journalists plus your 450 editorial staffers would make a much better newspaper. But let’s talk about it via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. While we’re at it, what Barron’s journos should defect? (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co. More disclosure: Tim Harford’s column “The Undercover Economist” appears in both Slate and the Financial Times. Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg’s weekly column appeared in the Financial Times until recently.) *
Correction, June 7, 2007: The original version of this article gave the wrong title for Tim Harford’s column in Slate and the Financial Times. It is “The Undercover Economist. Also, the original version erroneously stated that Jacob Weisberg’s Slate column appears in the Financial Times. It once did, but no longer does.