Rupert Murdoch must have rattled his wattles in joy this morning as he read in his New York Post that three more Wall Street Journal staffers have resigned. Boston bureau chief Daniel Golden and Hilary Stout, the “Personal Journal” section editor, have departed for Condé Nast’s Portfolio. Assistant Managing Editor Tunku Varadarajan has packed his bags and plans to return to academia. They join Douglas Frantz, who left the Los Angeles Times in July to become the Journal’s Middle East bureau chief—only to join Portfolio instead—and Tara Parker-Pope, who has ditched the paper for the New York Times.
Murdoch has made a telephonic show of wanting to retain his bolting staffers. In late August, he phoned Parker-Pope and two other Journal staffers (Kate Kelly and Henny Sender) from his yacht in the Mediterranean and asked them to stay, according to the Los Angeles Times. From the Times:
Murdoch told the reporters that they would be making a mistake to leave, that he valued all of the Journal’s coverage, and that positive changes were in store. Since announcing the acquisition of Dow Jones, Murdoch has publicly promised to invest in the Journal and expand its coverage.
Talk like this coming from any incoming boss is cheap, but it’s monumentally suspect when mouthed by a silver-tongued Satan like Murdoch, who makes promises as fast as he breaks them. When Times of London Editor Harold Evans confronted Murdoch for breaking promises about editorial independence, Murdoch allegedly said, “They’re not worth the paper they’re written on.”
Murdoch has a history of spreading charm over the telephone. In a letter to Romenesko last month, former New York Post sportswriter Vic Ziegel tells a story about receiving a similar call from Murdoch shortly after he acquired the Post in 1976. Postie Ziegel was considering a job at the competing Daily News, so Murdoch urged him to stay, “letting me know that he had great plans for the Post and wanted to keep me on board,” Ziegel writes. The sportswriter told Murdoch that the Daily News was offering more money, which didn’t cause Murdoch to reach for his wallet. “There was no hint of a few more dollars coming my way,” he writes. Ziegel left the Post and still writes for the Daily News.
The modus operandi when Murdoch takes over a publication is to make the right noises about retaining staff while scheming to get rid of them so he can move his people in. When he took control of the New York Post, Murdoch assured everybody that the paper would remain “serious” and that its “political policies,” which where liberal, would remain unchanged. Instead, he turned the paper into a freak show and transformed it into a conservative newspaper. In a Frontline episode (1995’s “Who’s Afraid of Rupert Murdoch?”) he co-wrote, Ken Auletta reports that Murdoch “replaced one quarter of the staff with tabloid warriors from his empire.”
One of the primary reasons he bought the company was to milk its reputation for his forthcoming business and finance cable channel. If a stampede of Journalists for the exits ensues, the paper’s credibility will be damaged and so will that of his fledgling channel. Hence the sweet talk to Parker-Pope, Kelly, and Sender from his yacht. I’ll bet Murdoch went to Costco and bought a pallet full of mints in preparation for the many phone calls he’ll have to make.
Evidence of Murdoch’s dumping plans came in a letter addressed to Dow Jones employees and written by company CEO Richard Zannino. In a Sept. 11 piece titled “Dow Jones Chief Paves the Way for Job Losses,” the Financial Times reports that the Zannino letter informed employees of coming “changes” at the company, stating that “where job cuts are unavoidable, we will communicate that as soon as practical.”
If the resignations trickle in, Murdoch will be happy to lose the best-paid Journal reporters for the obvious financial reasons. And nothing would make him happier than to provoke stuck-in-their-ways reporters—those most likely to resist the remaking of the paper in the Murdochian image—into quitting. The new hires, no matter who they are or how talented they may be, will consider themselves Murdoch loyalists. Loyal compared with the current staff, that is.
Murdoch excels at both spilling blood and applying transfusions of talent at his new acquisitions. A leader of the journalists’ union in Australia is said to have acknowledge the mogul’s skill by observing, “There are two types of journalist. Those who work for Rupert Murdoch … and those who are about to.”
The resignation of Tunku Varadarajan, who called Murdoch “a master practitioner of the corporate kowtow” in a 2001Wall Street Journal opinion piece that also attacked Murdoch’s son James, was expected. Who will be next to leave? Send your predictions to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)