Mugger: Rupe Therapy

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It’s no surprise that Mark Bowden’s article, “Mr. Murdoch Goes to War,” in the July/August issue of The Atlantic was catnip for mainstream journalists across the country. Who better to take on Rupert Murdoch than the respected, prize-winning 56-year-old Bowden, whose career as a newspaperman and author (Black Hawk Down) is beyond reproach? Armed with quotes from such sainted figures as Gene Roberts—the writer’s onetime boss at the Philadelphia Inquirer in the fat years of upscale dailies—Bowden makes clear that the “global-media buccaneer,” who has made the audacious (to some) boast that he intends his new acquisition, The Wall Street Journal, to compete with the New York Times for national domination, is no sure bet to succeed.

Roberts tells his onetime star investigative reporter: “Murdoch says he wants to turn [the Journal] into something more like the New York Times, but I suspect it will end up looking more like USA Today.” It’s a quaint observation from the septuagenarian Roberts, sure to get a snort from his cohorts in the incestuous elite media world, but it reminds me more of the widespread dismissal of Matt Drudge just a decade ago as nothing more than an “Internet gossip.” The plain fact is that men like Bowden and Roberts have already lost their war; the days of expensive foreign bureaus scattered across the globe, the freedom for reporters to work for months on one in-depth investigative series, the perks and salaries made possible by double-digit profit margins—all that’s gone and will likely never return. It’s like baseball purists complaining about the designated hitter rule in the American League or the bling that players flaunt on the field; no matter how loud the moans and high-handed criticism, the world has passed them by.

What’s even more curious to me is that Bowden spends his lengthy article exclusively on Murdoch, who at 77 is still vigorous and “lives the life of a young man” with a (third) wife “almost four decades his junior”; but despite possible protestations from the “tabloid pirate,” he won’t live forever. In fact, what Bowden and almost everyone else who’s written about Murdoch’s News Corp. buying Dow Jones Co. last year has neglected to put into proper perspective is this: It’s James Murdoch, now 35 and his father’s putative heir, who will have far more influence on the future direction of not only The Wall Street Journal but also all of the News Corp. properties. Bowden’s myopic take on Murdoch is at first blush rather astonishing, for he’s a man of keen intelligence and industrious at his craft; but I imagine he’s stuck in the media bubble of the moment, and he’s unable to imagine an ungrateful industry that doesn’t necessarily value men and women of his accomplishments.

People, by nature, don’t like change. My oldest brother, for example, complained bitterly when the Journal embraced modern times and started publishing in more than one compact section. Three months later, he was used to the “new” WSJ, although still hadn’t quite figured out how to juggle the paper on his train commute. Today, the “buzz” says that the paper’s a-hed stories—the eclectic and non-timely pieces that traditionally occupied a cherished spot in the middle of the front page—will be jettisoned for more topical news. Bowden writes, “The a-hed seems to sink lower and lower on the front page every day, like a setting sun.”

I like those stories too: a story by Jeanne Whalen and Isabella Lisk on June 17, datelined Orsett, England, was a wonderful curio. The headline is superb (“Alien Invasion: High-School Prom Lands in England, Causes a Bother”), as is the story itself. The duo writes: “Britain, the land of school uniforms, rigorous exams and ivy-covered school halls, is embracing an American invasion: the high-school prom.”

And who says the influence of United States has waned under the Bush administration?

Over at the Times, Barry Gewen, one of the editors of the paper’s Sunday book review section, took solace in Bowden’s Atlantic essay, writing gleefully in the Times’ “Paper Cuts” blog that Murdoch’s “war” against his paper won’t be an easy one to win. “[Murdoch] faces a classic business-school conundrum, one that may be studied at Wharton and on the banks of the Charles River for years to come.” Claiming, with faint hope I think, that Murdoch runs the risk of alienating the Journal’s core readership by competing with the Times by adding more political news, sports and lifestyle stories, Gewen compares it to a soda war. “But think of what happened when Coca-Cola tried to move into Pepsi’s niche with a sweeter concoction called New Coke: if faced a consumer revolt and was forced to retreat just to hold on to what it already had.”

But the “conundrum” is not at all analogous. Coke was tinkering, trying to expand its market share: The Journal and Times are fighting for their very survival as both companies attempt to successfully forge a profitable transformation to the Internet. It would seem, given News Corp.’s far more varied media portfolio—including newspapers, MySpace, cable television, 20th Century Fox, BSkyB and HarperCollins, to name just a few leaders—is far more equipped to wage a battle for global supremacy over the Times Co., which presently is saddled with the shrinking Boston Globe and, more importantly, growing dissent among its shareholders about the shaky leadership of the Sulzberger family. What may be studied at Wharton and [puke alert] “on the banks of the Charles River” is how an outsider, say George Soros or Michael Bloomberg, came to own what was once the most prestigious newspaper company in American history.

Bowden and his peers, set in their ways, don’t seem to comprehend that the communications business they knew is changing rapidly while they kvetch about the disappearance of long-form and allegedly objective journalism. As for alienating the Journal’s core audience, that’s old news too: for example, I still subscribe to that daily (and the Times as well), but I read most of it online. I don’t care if the “a-hed” is on the front page anymore; I don’t riffle through the first section on Wednesday to read Holman Jenkins’ business column or the new political column by Thomas Frank; and it certainly doesn’t bother me that the Journal has an advertisement on its front page.

The real question in the “war” between the Times Co. and Dow Jones is which entity is better equipped in the next decade to both make money and publish, in whatever form, a quality product. My money is on the Murdoch family.

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