Rupert Murdoch added the Wall Street Journal to his media empire this week. While many scramble to determine if this is good or bad news for journalism, Mark Jurkowitz, Associate Director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, explains that Murdoch has a surprisingly varied track record in the U.S. newspaper industry.
CHRIS BANNON: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Chris Bannon. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. The deal is done. Murdoch is buying the Bancroft’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. KEITH OLBERMANN: At some point, fear of Rupert Murdoch’s reputation may overcome the lure of his money. Didn’t in my case. In our third story on the Countdown, not yet. Murdoch will now add to his media empire a newspaper with the second highest circulation in the United States.
The deal, as of this hour, is officially done. It’s just been approved by the boards of both Dow Jones, publishers of The Wall Street Journal and News Corp. which is Murdoch’s corporate name. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the sky falling in Journalism Land? Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says not necessarily. There’s more to Murdoch than Fox News and the New York Post. MARK JURKOWITZ: Rupert Murdoch is not a Johnny-Come-Lately to the American newspaper market. He has owned a series of American newspapers in cities from San Antonio to Boston to Chicago, and there are two things that are notable about them.
One is they don’t all fit into a cookie-cutter mold. Rupert Murdoch, for a while, owned The Village Voice, [BROOKE LAUGHS] the granddaddy of the liberal alternative press in the United States, and did not, under his tenure, change its attitude or editorial outlook. He also started a supermarket tabloid called The Star. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which soon became a worthy competitor to The National Enquirer and in both of these cases, he sold them for a profit. MARK JURKOWITZ: Yeah. BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you look back to The San Antonio Express and his various other properties, excluding The New York Post, did he make them better as well as more profitable? MARK JURKOWITZ: In San Antonio, he essentially drove his competitor out of business, so presumably he made it better there. One thing you’d have to say, where he kind of staked out what looked like a strategy, was buying three sort of number two papers, all of them tabloids in major American cities, and that’s the New York Post, The Boston Herald and The Sun Times. And at that point — this all happened in the ‘80s — it looked like Murdoch had a strategy of sort of trying to create a tabloid newspaper empire in the United States.
In the long run, one thing is indisputable. In the case of both the New York Post and The Boston Herald, he did get newspapers that were about to go to the glue factory. He got them at bargain basement prices. We can argue about the quality of the journalism but they are two papers that still exist to this day that would not have been around but for the efforts of Mr. Murdoch. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Mark, I want to argue about the quality – MARK JURKOWITZ: Okay. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - of the journalism here, because some horses should go to the glue factory. MARK JURKOWITZ: [LAUGHS] Let’s take ‘em individually. The New York Post, obviously, is a completely different animal under Murdoch’s tenure and ownership than it was under Dorothy Schiff, when it was one of the most liberal newspapers in America.
Truth be told, it is and has been a serious money loser for a long, long time, but what the New York Post is today, and people remember it for the “Headless Body In Topless Bar” headline, is sort of the guilty second read of a lot of upscale Manhattanites who do read it for its media coverage, its celebrity coverage and its sports.
Is it going to take its place in the pantheon of newspapers alongside of The Washington Post and New York Times? No. Does it have a life to it and a clear-cut identity and niche? It does.
The Boston Herald is another one I would mention, because in his roughly dozen years of ownership there he infused it with some energy in terms of the marketing side. He made some investments in it, and I would say within six or seven years, he had turned it into a well-staffed tabloid that was kind of an interesting combination of fun and seriousness that was quite competitive with The Globe in areas such as sports and crime and politics. And it has suffered since then, but you could certainly look at that paper in a snapshot in time and say that at one point it had certainly come close to thriving under Mr. Murdoch’s stewardship. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this big deal was on the front page in all the New York papers, of course, except the New York Post. MARK JURKOWITZ: Yeah. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you surprised by how the ongoing saga has been covered? MARK JURKOWITZ: It’s fascinating. Even I am surprised by the level and the intensity of the coverage, and I think there are a couple of things that are in play here.
One — are the unique characteristics of the two major players. Rupert Murdoch is a swaggering 76-year-old man with huge global reach, and no one ever uses the word “News Corp.” It’s always “Rupert Murdoch.” I mean, he personifies his company. It’s almost as is he’s the only employee of his company.
So in a media universe that on some level may have lost some of its titans, in the good and bad senses of the word, Murdoch stands out as a very compelling and unique figure. And he does so as he tries to buy perhaps the most unique journalistic operation in the United States, a national paper with a narrow niche that covers the business community, the Pulitzer Prize machine read from coast to coast, and you put these two guys together and I think you’ve got the ingredients for a real high-level drama that you didn’t have, for example, when Knight Ridder, a company that owned 32 papers, including some of the finest in the country, suddenly vanished off the face of the earth, leaving 32 newspapers to go elsewhere. Sort of happened and it got covered but it was inside baseball.
Here in The Journal and Mr. Murdoch, you kind of have two larger than life figures. I just had somebody in our own office to sort of evaluate the last months of coverage in terms of tone, and it’s tended to be pretty negative toward Mr. Murdoch, by and large.
There’s a lot that could go wrong. The Bancrofts could rue the day when they made this deal, but on some level, I think a lot of the coverage has oversimplified a guy who, I think if you look closely, is a fairly complex operator. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK JURKOWITZ: You’re welcome, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.