Rupert Murdoch has had several months to exert influence over his new property, The Wall Street Journal. Many see the modifications to the paper and his grab for Newsday as a direct attack on The New York Times but Slate's Jack Shafer says the speculation is overblown.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's been nine months since Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. absorbed Dow Jones and its crown jewel, The Wall Street Journal, but it's only been a few months since Murdoch actually took over control of the paper – a very busy few months.
We've seen design and layout modifications, a front page increasingly devoted to politics as much or more than finance, and a new weekly sports page - staff changes, too, including the sudden departure this week of managing editor Marcus Brauchli.
Meanwhile, Murdoch's interest in adding the Long Island based Newsday to holdings that include The New York Post has fueled speculation that he is engaged in a pincer move to corner and conquer The New York Times, and that the changes at The Journal are designed to reposition it as a sexier alternative to the Gray Lady.
Jack Shafer, who writes the Press Box column for Slate, doesn't buy it. JACK SHAFER: You tell me if a combination of The Wall Street Journal and Newsday would satisfy your news needs the way that The New York Times does. I mean, it is still the superior general read, and I don't see how News Corp. can turn The Wall Street Journal into a replacement newspaper for The New York Times any time soon.
One of the places that Murdoch is wisely going after The New York Times is that it's going to start a weekly glossy magazine called WSJ, and that's clearly designed to go after both the readers and the advertisers of The New York Times Magazine, which is a very lucrative part of The New York Times package.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The battling Bancroft family that owned The Wall Street Journal sold it to Murdoch with the understanding that an independent committee would oversee the journalistic integrity of the paper, and this included approving certain hirings and firings.
Last week, Murdoch seemed to completely ignore the committee when he received the so-called "resignation" of managing editor Marcus Brauchli. Can you explain what happened there? JACK SHAFER: Can we say "horse dung" on the radio? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure. JACK SHAFER: Because the whole idea of this special committee designed to oversee Murdoch and prevent him from somehow tarnishing this jewel of American journalism was a fig leaf for both Murdoch and for the Bancroft family that didn't want to appear to be selling their newspaper to a vulgarian – well, it's obvious horse dung. And it was horse dung in the United Kingdom when Murdoch purchased The Times of London and a similar, a special committee was established. And, you know, just as Murdoch forced out Marcus Brauchli from The Wall Street Journal, he forced out Harold Evans and just pushed the committee aside.
I think that when you pay five billion dollars for a property, you should be allowed to do whatever you want to do with it – include run it into the ground, if that's what Rupert Murdoch wants to do. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why did Murdoch seek the so-called resignation of Marcus Brauchli? JACK SHAFER: All I know is what I've read in the news reports, and that was he and the new publisher, Robert Thomson, who he brought in from London, wanted to change The Journal faster than Brauchli appeared to want to change The Journal. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if there haven’t been what amounts to significant changes for you, it does seem as if there are big changes in the offing. JACK SHAFER: What changes do you think? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, I guess I'm still not entirely persuaded that there isn't an effort here to turn The Journal into a general-interest paper that could rival The Times. JACK SHAFER: Here's why that doesn't work for me. Right now, if you look at the architecture of The Wall Street Journal, two of the four sections are hard business news – the Money and Investing section and the Marketplace section. Personal Journal and the A section also have business news in them.
In your New York Times, you have weekly sections on dining, you have weekly sections on science, weekly sections on travel, reflecting all the interests that a general-interest reader would want to have addressed.
I don't see how The Wall Street Journal gets to that point and at the same time maintains this fabulous franchise of being the leading business newspaper in the United States. I mean, it is now the largest circulation daily in the United States. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about Murdoch's influence on the editorial board, an influence he is by rights allowed to have? They're both conservative, and so it would seem that they would be very much in synch. Do you expect him to exert a lot of influence there? JACK SHAFER: I think you're making a mistake when you call Rupert Murdoch a conservative. He is a political opportunist. If you take a look and see who he supported in the most recent Australian election, it was not the conservative. It was the liberal.
Likewise, in the United Kingdom, Murdoch eventually put all the support of his daily newspapers there behind Tony Blair. BROOKE GLADSTONE: He likes to back a winner. JACK SHAFER: He likes to back a winner. He likes to have access. He threw a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton's reelection bid for the Senate in 2006. This is a mistake people make all the time about Rupert Murdoch, the idea that he is some sort of conservative ideologue who has come to the United States to, I don't know, guarantee the Reagan restoration, when all he really is, is a political pragmatist. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've been pretty critical of Murdoch in your column but you've also conceded that the guy knows how to run a business. Do you think he's one of the last best hopes for at least the short-term future of American newspapers? JACK SHAFER: I don't think I would say that. [BROOKE LAUGHS] Murdoch is not prone to the whining and woe-is-meism that so many other newspapermen practice. He's willing to invest in his properties. He's willing to lose money. For a 77-year-old man, it's almost as if he has begun the first year of a 20-year plan to modernize his media portfolio, so he's a real optimist.
Remember when he started the Fox Television Network? Everybody in the country said, oh, there are room for three conventional networks. And when he started Fox News Channel, people said, oh, there's really only room for CNN. There can't possibly be room for another.
And time and again, he goes in and he defies the so-called experts because he's a force of creative destruction. [BROOKE LAUGHS] He will go in and he will steal anybody's bacon. And he generally steals it honestly by competing, and for that you really have to admire him. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack, thanks very much. JACK SHAFER: It's always a pleasure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Shafer is Slate's editor-at-large and he writes the Press Box column.