Media scholar Ben Compaine tells me he thinks the Wall Street Journal has begun to reflect the journalistic philosophy of genocidal tyrant Rupert Murdoch, who completed his acquisition of its parent company, Dow Jones & Co., in the middle of December.
Murdoch had promised to increase the amount of hard news in the Journal, particularly political and international coverage, and to compete directly with the New York Times. The evidence Compaine cites is the Journal’s me-too coverage of the Pakistan crisis, which he thinks bears Murdoch’s fingerprints. Pointing to the paper’s Jan. 2 lead story—”Pakistan to Delay Vote, Risking Violent Reaction”—Compaine complains via e-mail, “Like we needed Wednesday’s Journal to tell us this?”*
That was only one of several Pakistan stories the Journal placed on Page One in the last week. Others include “Pakistan Violence Threatens Rule of Musharraf” (Dec. 29), “Growing Fury at Musharraf Deepens Crisis” (Dec. 31), and “Ballots vs. Bombs: Islamist Politicians Emerge as Pakistan’s Power Brokers” (Jan. 4). *
Compaine’s critique continues: “What was always compelling about the Journal was Page 1, with stories you would find nowhere else.” He wagers that most of the paper’s readers already knew “all this Pakistan stuff from Yahoo or whatever they use as a home page” before the paper got to them. I thought dailies were trying to get out of the business of printing yesterday’s stale news, he says.
Findings collected in one week—especially a holiday week when business news ebbs and reporters take extra time off—don’t necessarily make a trend. But I think that Compaine is onto something here. Chasing the “top story” creates the illusion that the Journal is dueling with the Times, which has more resources.
The peril of publishing from inside a Potemkin village is that once readers figure out the dodge—editors overselling stories—the newspaper’s reputation suffers. Barney Kilgore, the architect of the modern Wall Street Journal, understood that he couldn’t afford to compete with the Times, and that his paper would always be a second read for most subscribers. So instead of chasing the “duty story” about yesterday’s assassination, earthquake, or coup, he picked his shots carefully, giving readers something they couldn’t get elsewhere. Keeping its primary focus on business, the Journal broke nonbusiness stories that nobody else had; captured the essence of an evolving story better than the competition (including the newsweeklies); and perfected the “A-Hed,” the offbeat story that had no reason to be on Page One other than that it was fascinating. (Didn’t you just love Michael M. Phillips’ A-Hed this week about Dennis Kucinich’s close encounter?)
Last month, the New York Times’ Richard Pérez-Peña gathered and analyzed an impressive pile of Journal tea leaves in an attempt to determine the paper’s direction. He learned that besides shortening articles—something the paper had been doing since its December 2006 redesign, anyway—there was big talk of banning “jumps” from Page One to inside pages in the style of the Financial Times, and even removing the words Wall Street from the paper’s nameplate to widen its appeal. Both ideas were tabled, but if Murdoch really wants either, he’ll get them.
In declaring the Times his prime rival and expressing a desire to broaden the Journal’s audience, Murdoch may be signaling plans to expand the Journal from a business daily to a national daily along the lines of his Down Under pride and joy, the Australian. I can visualize a Murdoch Journal that goes upscale to battle with the Times at the same time it navigates down-market to duel with USA Today. But here’s a safer prediction: The Journal will have more color, grander graphics, and more “charticles” along the lines of the nicely done “Tighter Spigots” feature in the Jan. 3 edition. Wherever Murdoch competes, he plays the showman and increases production values dramatically.
Where exactly is Murdoch taking the Journal? It’s not Murdoch’s style to use a new acquisition to curry political favor or punish enemies, so it’s too soon to catch him trying to anoint somebody president the way he put the fix in for John Major in the United Kingdom. But the day will come.
Until it does, I’ll be tracking his subtler Murdoch mutations of the Journal’s DNA. I invite you to crowdsource this topic with me. If you spot early clues of Murdochification, send finding to email@example.com and I’ll give full credit.
If newspapers came with audio speakers, the Murdoch Street Journal would have a squealing, rock-guitar theme song just like the Fox News Channel and Fox coverage of the NFL. (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.)
Correction, Jan. 7, 2008: The original version of this story gave the incorrect date for the story “Pakistan to Delay Vote, Risking Violent Reaction.” The date has been corrected. (Return to the corrected sentence.) It also repeated that headline as the fourth instance of Journal Pakistan coverage in one week. The correct fourth example is “Ballots vs. Bombs: Islamist Politicians Emerge as Pakistan’s Power Brokers,” which is now included in the story. (Return to the corrected sentence.)