WSJ newsroom employees shaken by Murdoch maneuver

by Walter Hamilton, LA Times

Reporters at the Wall Street Journal, who pride themselves on their paper's thoughtful and high-quality journalism, reacted with near horror Tuesday at the prospect of having Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. as an owner.

They worried that the flashy style that has been Murdoch's trademark at other papers — such as at the tabloid New York Post across town — would seep into the financial paper of record and that the media baron would inject his conservative political views into the Journal's news coverage, as critics say he has done at his Fox News Channel. They also expressed fear that News Corp. would slash the paper's staff.

"The New York Post and Fox News are grotesque, fearsome mutants of what newsrooms should be," said a longtime reporter, who like most other staff members interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity. "The newsroom is aghast at the idea."

E.S. Browning, a veteran Journal reporter who is active in the union representing editorial staff members, expressed a similar thought with tamer language.

"I think people are really worried and upset," he said. "People really value the quality and the independence of the Wall Street Journal."

The union, the Independent Assn. of Publishers' Employees, strongly criticized Murdoch, saying in a statement that he "has shown a willingness to crush quality and independence, and there is no reason to think he would handle Dow Jones or the Journal any differently."

The labor group also warned that the $5-billion price offered by News Corp. for the Journal's parent firm, Dow Jones & Co., suggested only one way "to make the acquisition profitable: gutting the enterprise and slashing the staff that make it the leading financial news organization."

Indeed, reporters and editors were left to ponder their suddenly uncertain future at the Journal, whose circulation of 2 million copies makes it the country's second-largest newspaper, after USA Today.

There was speculation that other suitors could emerge, meaning Dow Jones could be headed for the type of protracted corporate-takeover saga that the Journal regularly chronicles.

Several reporters said they hoped that other companies would bid — particularly Washington Post Co., which has been rumored to be interested in the past — though they acknowledged that Murdoch's offer could be hard to top.

"People are scared, maybe "terrified" is a better word," said one Journal veteran. "Based on Murdoch's record, there is the expectation that there would be major changes if he took over and a lot of people would be looking for a way out."

For some at the Journal, Murdoch's bid shattered a sense of professional invulnerability.

Although the forces roiling the newspaper industry are well known, several Journal reporters said they had felt largely insulated from such upheaval with Dow Jones under the longtime control of the Bancroft family. The company said Monday that the Bancrofts were opposed to the News Corp. bid, but it was unclear whether they might view a higher offer more favorably.

"We've had this feeling of being very protected here," said one reporter. "When we read about everything taking place at other newspapers we've never had any reason in the past to think the Journal would be going through any of that."

Added another reporter: "Everyone knows the game plan for a takeover like this. Close the international editions. Close the bureaus. Cut, cut, cut, cut and exploit the name until it's not worth anything anymore."

On the bright side for reporters, any Dow Jones shares or options they held suddenly became much more valuable when the stock price jumped after the News Corp. bid was reported.

"I've heard people chatting about it, saying, 'I've hung on to my confederate money long enough, it might be worth something,' " one reporter said.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey