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A new jewel for Rupert Murdoch’s crown: Will he fix what isn’t broken at The Wall Street Journal?

October 1, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Chris Cobb

The following article appears in the October issue of PR Tactics.

So Rupert Murdoch has achieved his long-time ambition and bought Dow Jones & Co., and its prized possession, The Wall Street Journal. What happens next?

After testy mid-summer negotiations amid much fear and loathing, the international media mogul dug into his deep pockets and paid $5 billion for the nation’s second-largest circulating daily and its related Dow Jones properties.

Murdoch says he has no intention of interfering with the Journal’s news and editorial page content, but any student of the Australian-born media titan knows that such reassurance is the Murdoch equivalent of a pro-sports team owner expressing 110 percent confidence in a failing coach just before firing him. Murdoch has issued similar assurances for other newspapers and done the opposite.

Questions and uncertainty hang over the Murdoch takeover. Will he import newsroom leaders from the United Kingdom or Australia to steer the Journal more to the conservative right? Will he want the Journal to be less critical of corporate America? Will he use the news and editorial pages to promote his own regulation-light business agenda? 

Unease and resignation
There is a mix of unease and resignation in the Journal newsroom, says Gene Coulter, editorial director at Peppercom in New York and, until last year, news editor of the Money Investing section of the Journal.

“Everyone in the newsroom is dealing with it,” says Coulter, whose role with Peppercom includes strategic consulting on media relations. “Ask any of them if they would have preferred to stay independent and they would say yes. Some people will leave, but everyone isn’t heading for the doors. These journalists are the best in the world at analyzing business, and they understand they are at a point where the industry they are in has to change.”

Coulter figures Murdoch will move quickly to build the Journal brand globally using his existing News Corp. holdings in Europe and Asia and will make the brand a major part of his new digital cable channel to launch in the fall.

Still a tough nut to crack
The newspaper will continue to pursue analytical journalism under its “How” and “Why” headlines and will continue to be a tough nut to crack for PR professionals.

“The paper’s stock in trade,” he says, “is the explainer. If you are a company with a quickie message you perceive to be news that you want to get out through the Journal, they are not really interested. They are more interested in 25 pieces of string you weave together and make a bigger ball of yarn.”

Coulter says his first piece of advice to clients looking for that kind of publicity is “don’t presume you’re ever going to get into the Journal.”

“Too many companies and clients think only about what their problems are,” he says, “and don’t consider what problems the reporters have. What are their editors asking them to do? What are the gaps in their reporting? Do they work on short- or longer-term stuff? How can you help them become more successful reporters? They are looking for you to explain what the world means. It’s strategic and takes time and patience. Be available for comment and background, but it will take 10 phone calls to get one message in a story.”

The Journal, adds Coulter, is interested in two kinds of scoops — news scoops and scoops of ideas.

“You need to learn how to think like a Journal reporter and editor and help them explain the world,” he says. “If you want that big home run in a publication like the Journal, you need to let reporters look behind the curtains a little bit. A lot of companies are afraid of showing their problems or perceived problems to journalists. I would counsel that if you talked openly about a problem your company had and then showed the solution, you have a positive story. Sometimes you have to show your warts in public.”

Ed Cafasso, a former reporter and city editor at Murdoch’s Boston Herald and now managing director of Manning Selvage and Lee’s Boston office, agrees with Coulter.

However the editorial and news sides shake down, says Cafasso, The Wall Street Journal will still loom large in the working lives of PR professionals.

“The Journal is the No. 1 ‘hit’ that a PR professional in corporate and consumer practice can get,” he says. “It’s the publication you both love and fear, but if you can get your point across in The Wall Street Journal it’s not just a feather in your cap, it’s a headdress.”

It isn’t an easy relationship for a PR pro to establish and won’t get any easier, warns Cafasso.

“The Journal is known for doing its due diligence and for being rigorously skeptical,” he adds. “It is also very cognizant of trends and where industries are going. So you have to do your homework. To get a significant front section story in The Wall Street Journal will, on average, take you three months from your first contact with a reporter. There will be a lot of back and forth and a lot of questions. That won’t change. You have to be on top of your game at all times.”

Murdoch, the modern-day buccaneer
Cafasso figures that the Journal’s reporting is the jewel in Murdoch’s new crown.

“He should leave the editorial side alone and look for ways to make the business side more efficient and profitable,” says Cafasso. “The Journal and Market Watch are reputable, award-winning business publications. They aren’t broken and don’t need fixing.”

Murdoch wouldn’t be the first corporate leader to fix a company that wasn’t broken. But at 76 years old, the father of Fox has proven his ability to see profit where others see only the status quo.

Murdoch biographer Jerome Tuccille is less convinced that the new owner will take a business-as-usual approach to Journal news coverage but warns anyone attempting to read the Murdoch tea leaves to expect the unexpected.

The New York Post was a left-wing publication before he took it over,” Tuccille tells Tactics. “Within a year he had his so-called Australian mafia in there, and the paper became more and more conservative. The Journal’s editorial pages are already conservative, but the news pages tend to be more independent, less conservative and a little hard on business at times.

“Murdoch didn’t buy the Journal as an academic exercise. He has bought it for business and political reasons, and down the road he will make it his own newspaper.”

Tuccille describes Murdoch as a modern-day buccaneer who often does what is least expected and is prone to unpredictable political alliances. For example, his UK newspapers spent years attacking the left-leaning British Labour Party and then shifted their political bias in the late 1990s when Tony Blair became party leader and a sure bet to oust the ruling Conservatives.

Tuccille sees something similar happening now.

“In the United States, Murdoch is associated with conservative Republicans,” he says, “but lately he has been getting very chummy with Hillary Clinton. He wants to be close to power no matter which side of the fence it is on, so I think he is almost mislabeled as a conservative. There is an anarchistic streak in him. He likes to do his own thing.”

A charm offensive
Media business analyst Rick Edmonds, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute of Media Studies in St. Petersburg, predicts Murdoch will move slowly and carefully at the Journal.

“The most likely increases will be in coverage from Washington and abroad,” Edmonds says. “A lot of people say he will trash it up but that doesn’t make much sense from a business point of view, and he’s a very smart business guy.”

The New York Times, Financial Times, Investors Business Daily and others will be vigilant, says Edmonds, in the expectation that Murdoch will eventually ramp up competition both on the pages of the Journal and on the streets.

“In trying to build both circulation and advertising, Murdoch is quite prepared to start price wars,” adds Edmonds. “So there will be changes because he thinks he can run it better than the previous owners and make it work with his other business ventures. But I would look for more changes and surprises on the business side than in the editorial approach.”

Edmonds floats the theory that Murdoch hasn’t bought the Journal for purely business reasons but as a prestigious building block in the PR campaign to enhance his own image in the United States that, to say the least, is not that of a purveyor of quality, balanced journalism.

“I’ve seen him in action,” says Edmonds, “and he is quite capable of turning on a charm offensive.”

A boon for the PR profession?
Adam Thierer, author of the online book “Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate Over Media Ownership,” doubts that the Murdoch takeover will make any difference to the coverage of business.

“The Journal is just one source of financial news,” he says. “Murdoch’s takeover doesn’t concern me as much as it does other media critics who seem myopically obsessed with what he owns and does. I don’t have to pay attention to Murdoch if I don’t have to. I have options, and so does the rest of the world.”

Those who fear that the Journal will become a tool to further Murdoch’s global media interests can be assured it won’t happen, says Thierer, director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Media Freedom.

“Armchair media critics in the United States and elsewhere will be writing columns about everything The Wall Street Journal covers,” he says. “So you have millions of ombudsmen out there monitoring the Journal’s activities.”

Tucille, who has advised financial institutions on PR strategies, doubts PR professionals will be impacted in the short term by the Murdoch takeover, but has no doubt that Murdoch will aggressively target the opposition such as The Financial Times, USA Today, Forbes, Fortune and BusinessWeek.

“Murdoch is more interested in the big political and business pictures,” he says, “not the details of each story. But like everyone who professes to be in favor of free enterprise, they usually like competition for others but not themselves. For these guys, business is warfare, and if you can destroy your competitors it is all part of the game.”

But even the worst-case scenario for Journal reporters could be a boon for the PR profession, says Cafasso.

“We could see some of those reporters move over to the PR side of the business,” he says. “A Journal reporter leaving to go into corporate communications would be a huge catch for any agency or any corporation.”

Author and journalist Chris Cobb is a senior writer at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in Canada’s capital where he specializes in reporting on media and government communication.


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