Fearing a Heavy Hand, Outer-Borough Papers Find Murdoch Has Light Touch

The phone hacking and bribery scandal at Britain's News of the World newspaper is not the first time concerns have been raised about Murdoch and media manipulation.

When News Corp – which owns the New York Post and Wall Street Journal - bought community newspapers in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn in 2006, 2007 and 2009, respectively, media watchers were worried they'd be reshaped as conservative Murdoch mouthpieces.

But several former staffers at The Brooklyn Paper and TimesLedger newspapers say the marching orders never came — and the neighborhood papers that now make up the Community Newspapers Group at News Corp continued to make their own decisions about editorials, endorsements and reporting, according to former employees.

"As far as editorial issues, I didn't see a lot of change," said former TimesLedger reporter Anna Gustafson of the climate after the sale to News Corp. in September 2006. "It seemed like he was less interested in editorial control, which he seems to be with Fox News and the Post, than in getting his foot into local news. It definitely seemed more about dominating the market than about controlling opinion. There wasn't anybody saying 'You have to write this or cover something this way.'"

Murdoch's attraction to the community newspapers was financial, not ideological, said former TimesLedger publisher Steven Blank, who sold the papers to News Corp for an undisclosed sum.

"It had most to do with the fact that the New York Post had significantly less circulation in Brooklyn and Queens [than the Daily News], said Blank, who is now publisher of a network of community newspapers in Nassau County.

"That was one element and it was connected to another: Rupert Murdoch was a fan of print publications and weekly newspapers and he thought that they could be profitable when combined together."

The papers had a combined circulation 360,000 weekly — which includes the seven Times Ledger papers in Queens, the seven Courier Life Brooklyn papers, The Brooklyn Paper, the Bronx Times, Bronx Times Reporter and Caribbean Life.

The community papers would be used to offset the famously huge losses at the New York Post, Blank said. He stayed on as publisher at the TimesLedger papers for two years after the sale and left at the end of his contract in October 2008.

In those two years he saw several changes around staffing and community outreach that he disagreed with, but no editorial interference.

News Corp cut the staff from eight reporters to five at 16 TimesLedger newspapers, merged several titles and stepped back from the sort of community outreach Blank prided himself on, he said.

"They have not seen the value of having a publisher," he said. "In community newspapers you have those local relationships. You know what is happening and it is also beneficial for advertising. I think it is good to have a figurehead. And that was something that the new management did not see as being a value."

But political influence or newsroom interference wasn't News Corp's style, he said.

"I have a lot of disagreements with these people, but there was no interference with our editorials or coverage," Blank said. "If anything, they were concerned and wanted to keep Murdoch's ownership and the NY Post low profile."

Another former TimesLedger reporter said staff used to joke that Murdoch probably didn't even know he owned the community newspapers.

"There wasn't too much of a tangible shift after the sale," said the reporter, who asked that his name be withheld because he did not have permission from his current employer to speak. "They kind of had a hands-off attitude about it."

The group publisher and later editorial writers made decisions about political endorsements and endorsed Democrats in most local races: "That crossed our mind when News Corp bought us, but there was never any kind of edict," he said.

Former staff at The Brooklyn Paper, which was bought in March 2009, told a similar story.

News Corp's reach wasn't felt in the newsroom, and staff joked- like their TimesLedger colleagues about being a forgotten News Corp property.

Gersh Kuntzman, editor of The Brooklyn Paper, said he could not comment on the scandal or the paper's relationship with its parent company.

"I am not unwilling to talk, I am unable to talk," he said and referred all questions to a spokeswoman at PR powerhouse Rubenstein Communications. Rubenstein had no comment.

Kuntzman was a reporter at the New York Post before moving to The Brooklyn Paper, a move he made before the sale to News Corp.

While Murdoch's politics may not be in evidence in the Community Newspapers Group, the consolidation of several newspapers and the policy of sharing articles between publications is noticed, at least by some readers.

Since Courier Life papers in Brooklyn are now partners with The Brooklyn Paper in the CNG family, former competitors share content, a net loss for readers, said Norman Oder who writes the Atlantic Yards Report blog and is a close media watcher.

The Brooklyn Paper, formerly a fierce watchdog on the Atlantic Yards project has become less aggressive since the 2009 sale, Oder alleges, but he isn't sure whether or not that is attributable to News Corp.

"“I do see less of a focus on hard news," he said. "There is a lot of softer news. It's hard to say if that is Murdoch or just a sign or our times. When weekly newspapers like Brooklyn Paper were stronger they did more aggressive reporting."