By Kyle Austin
This week’s headlines once again reiterated that Rupert Murdoch is in the midst of writing a remarkable closing chapter in his memoir on creating a tyrannical media empire.
On Tuesday, Wall Street Journal managing editor Marcus Brauchli confirmed rumors that he was being marked for exile to Siberia (i.e. a News Corp consulting role) when he issued his letter of resignation.
By Wednesday, Murdoch had the media solely focused on his new bid and handshake agreement with Tribune Co. mogul Sam Zell to purchase Newsday – aligning a distinguishing “Murdoch Newspaper Monopoly” on New York City and its surrounding area.
Is any of this unexpected? Quite frankly, no, as Fortune’s Richard Siklos points out:
“The news from News this week is hardly unexpected, because you never know what to expect from Murdoch. Where the Journal is concerned, the game plan (for now) is to make the paper livelier and expand its political and general news coverage to compete more squarely with the New York Times, which Murdoch feels has held too much sway over setting America’s news agenda.”
This strategy of making the paper livelier (“How long till we have page six girls?” – as a colleague of mine muttered this week?) and more mainstream is a strategy that is very familiar to the changes that Murdoch drove at the New York Post and Times of London.
However, as Siklos also notes – He is taking over a frontrunner in the Wall Street Journal – a very new territory for him:
“But the Journal already outsells the New York Times on weekdays (nearly 2 to 1), so Murdoch is attempting both to keep the Journal‘s core business readers and lure the Times’ high-end readership who might otherwise not give a pure business paper a look. If a jazzed-up Journal can get just 5 or 10% of Times readers to switch over, the idea is that more high-end advertisers will follow. There is, of course, a huge online component to this too, not to mention the longer-term promise of melding Journal content with other TV and print assets around the world.”
The true value of the Journal, as it currently stands, is in its deep knowledge in the corporate and business world. In addition, the resulting clout it holds with the business, investor and analyst community. During the transition to Murdoch’s jazzed-up Journal it will be imperative that he doesn’t dilute this clout.
To everyday readers like my self the change is already noticeable and in my mind that isn’t a good thing. It would behoove Murdoch and News Corp. to make the changes more subtle and keep business top-of-line on page 1 and work to gradually implement the growing political and mainstream news into the rest of the paper. However, Murdoch seems nearly obsessed with becoming the “paper of record” over the Times, neglecting one of the core rules of being a publisher – never alienate your core readers.
Where’s the focus on coming to a concise strategy with online operations and free/paid online content? Let alone, re-shaping the interface of the online site that sorely lacks behind the interactive features and blog following that the Times’ website has created. Where is the focus on working on the loophole in the exclusive WSJ agreement with CNBC, so that he can “allow” the Journal’s writers to save his teetering Fox Business Network?
We haven’t seen them and yet he remains focused on making changes to the print edition of the Journal. Michael Learmonth over at Silicon Alley Insider fully illustrates just how much the Journal has already transformed since Rupert’s take over in pointing to a very interesting report from the Project on Excellence in Journalism:
“Business coverage is down 50% on the front page (of the WSJ), while political and foreign news are way up. Since Dec. 13, the Journal has devoted almost as much front-page real estate to politics (18%) as the New York Times (26.5%). A complete study of the transformation is available at journalism.org, but here’s a handy pre- and post-Murdoch synopsis (chart).”
There are no doubts that change is underway and expect more of the same to follow. However, Rupert will have to walk a tight line if he wants his mainstream approach to pay dividends with the WSJ. A watered down Journal isn’t exactly what its daily readers are asking for and if Murdoch fails to bring in the readers that are currently favoring the “Old Gray Lady,” he and the Journal will be the ones left truly looking gray. Gambling a religious business readership -with deep pockets – is a lot to risk when you’re the market leader.