Journal gets a makeover with reputation intact

When Rupert Murdoch, patriarch of the slap-happy New York Post and the rightist rants of Fox News, offered $5.6 billion last year for the parent company of the august Wall Street Journal, news industry veterans feared he’d shred the paper’s hard-earned chops as a reliable — if sometimes dull — interpreter of boardroom intrigue and mercurial market forces.

The recoil prompted Murdoch to spend months assuring the controlling Bancroft family — as well as wary newsroom staffers — the Journal’s good name would be in safe hands.

As it turns out, Murdoch — whose once-venerable London Times has been reduced to a tabloid with front-page teasers for contests and DVD giveaways — has already left a firm imprint on the Journal. Whether it’s positive or negative depends on who you ask.

Inside its ranks, the paper appears to be reeling from the impending resignation of managing editor Marcus Brauchli, the top-ranking editor in the newsroom, which was reported by the New York Times on April 22. The article intimated that Brauchli clashed with Murdoch and newly installed publisher Robert Thomson over thinning the ranks of editors to make room for more reporters.

Regardless, the paper seems faster on its feet. For instance, Mark Penn’s forced departure as Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist made the front page, which, for a political story, was “incredible placement for the Journal,” says Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam.

“That would normally be a 400-word story on A6,” adds Beam. “Now, if it’s really news and it’s big and it’s political, it’ll be on A1. If a company is in trouble, there’ll be a much quicker story out front. You don’t have to wait four weeks for the amazing, 4,000-word piece explaining the whole thing.”

While Murdoch has been careful not to force a deviation from the paper’s core job of covering the business world, the Journal on any given day now runs more stories than ever about lifestyle trends, the arts, fashion and the presidential primaries, some of them prominently displayed with color photographs — this in a newspaper that for decades ran only small, stippled portraits of its subjects.

The changes have a specific aim: to challenge the journalistic hegemony of the New York Times. Howell Raines, former executive editor of the Times, wrote in his first column as a media critic for Portfolio that Murdoch, now that he has the Journal under his belt, “will spend whatever it takes to undermine the Times’s standing as America’s leading general-interest newspaper.”

“I don’t think dueling with the Times was his primary objective, but now that he’s got it, he seems to be taking advantage of the additional opportunity,” Raines said at the Week magazine’s annual awards dinner in Washington, D.C.

Murdoch’s News Corp. is also planning to issue a high-end, glossy magazine, to be titled WSJ when it debuts as a quarterly edition in September. But Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, has doubts about Murdoch’s magazine strategy.

“I wonder what he has besides the brand,” Kaplan says. “Seems to me that every space in the business book spectrum is already taken — from sassy to sober to consumer interest.”

Murdoch also plans to move the Journal ‘s newsroom — a fixture of its namesake district in downtown Manhattan since publication began in 1889 — to the News Corp. headquarters at 1211 Avenue of the Americas.

Most of the paper’s 750 reporters and editors seem to view the move as a good thing. There are better places to have lunch in midtown, and they’ll get face time with sources who previously worked too far from Wall Street. The only possible downside? Working in the same building as the New York Post.

Murdoch is likely to spring more changes on the Journal, its readers and journalism in general, says John K. Hartman, a journalism professor at Central Michigan U.

“If Murdoch really wants to bedevil the newspaper industry,” Hartman says, “he will spin off a national general-interest daily and make it free.”

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