Murdoch, the Journal, and the newsroom diaspora

It is no surprise that Rupert Murdoch will be the new owner of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal: This was inevitable from the moment he put his money on the table (at a share price approaching double the market value).

Nor is there any surprise in the ritualistic pronouncements being heard throughout the world of traditional journalism — beginning on the Journal’s own editorial page with assurances from both the editorial column and the paper’s publisher that standards will be upheld and independence will be maintained, and spreading far and wide. These assertions are inevitable. Equally inevitably, they will be trotted out to be quoted, with suitable irony, the first time the paper’s new owner throws his weight around and demonstrates their irrelevance.

So the Journal will now have an oversight committee of some sort — a figleaf-shaped offering to pacify the consciences of those members of the Bancroft family who felt some remorse at grabbing Murdoch’s cash. Murdoch will pay no more attention to the oversight of such a committee than the president his TV network helped elect pays his congressional overseers. (Congress, at least, has some constitutional authority.)

And why should he? He paid good money for the Journal. The Journal is a property first and foremost. Under our economic system — the one that the Journal has always championed — owners are free to manage their properties. It is this cold reality, far more than any specific fears about how Murdoch will wreck the Journal’s newsroom (which is full of great talent but which many outsiders in the profession see as overstaffed and underworked), that has so many journalists wringing their hands.

The truth is that most professional journalists in the U.S. have lived in a cocoon for decades. The so-called Chinese wall that separates the newsroom from the business side is typically framed as a noble device for insuring that advertiser cash does not influence news coverage. That’s an important goal. But in practice these walls are only as strong as the ethical principles of those who maintain them. Pair a bullying publisher with a weak-willed editor and no wall will help.

Meanwhile, these walls have had a more insidious effect on the newsroom side: they have encouraged journalists to pay no attention to the economic basis for their work. Most editorial employees in major-city newsrooms, protected by their unions and shielded from the “dark side” of business by the traditional wall, end up thinking of their jobs as the journalistic equivalent of endowed university chairs.

This worked as long as the news business remained healthily profitable — and, in many areas, a monopoly. But in the past couple of decades, technological change has knocked over the business’s foundations. The endowments are going bankrupt. The walls are crumbling.

Journalists’ reactions to all this have generally fallen into two camps. Some dream that the old order can somehow be reconstituted. Find an angel investor who doesn’t mind losing money! Set up non-profit newsrooms! Do anything as long as you can find a way to maintain the journalist’s state of purity!

Others have looked at the changing business and said, no way are we going to be able to beat this, so let’s join it. Let’s take the principles we understand — accuracy and fairness and independence and speaking truth to power — and see how we can ferry them into the new environment.

Doing so requires some level of entrepreneurial thinking. You can’t avoid getting your hands a little grubby. You can’t sit back and let somebody else worry about the “dark side” while you keep yourself immaculate. But you don’t get stuck in the powerless, paralyzing backwaters of so many of today’s newsrooms, either. You trade in the infantilizing paternalism of the old-school newsroom for a level of autonomy that is precious.

I made this choice when I left the San Francisco Examiner in 1995; many others have made it since. It’s not easy. But there are plenty of examples of success. Salon is the one I’m most familiar with, but there are a million experiments out there — from big-name blogs and blog networks to tiny local sites to niche news efforts.

Some of these manage to pull off the neat trick of staying afloat and staying ethical; others don’t. But none that aims to pay a staff has the luxury of pretending that it’s not a business. Now the Wall Street Journal’s journalists face the same choice.

I don’t trust Rupert Murdoch. He has a long and well-documented record of using his properties to further his own agenda. But I trust that there are a lot of smart writers and editors at the Journal. Either they’ll get an opportunity to reshape their paper in a way that suits the times and their own consciences — or they’ll find themselves in the great newsroom diaspora with the rest of us, helping figure out new models for the future.
[tags]journalism, wall street journal, dow jones, rupert murdoch, new media, newspapers[/tags]

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  1. Vip

    The thing is, WSJ internal opinions aside, for customers, Murdoch has killed the goose that laid the golden egg: WSJ has value because of its rep for accurate, factual reporting. Now that Rupert has gotten his mitts on the goose, who’s still going to trust the WSJ? No intelligent person. Result: no trust, no rep, no goods, no value. By tainting the Journal with his dirty hands, Rupert turned the WSJ into another lousy spinoff of the Simpsons (which, as the original, is unsurpassed and deserves their movie hit). The other spinoff of the Simpsons, Fox News, is a lousy copy. WSJ will be even lousier still.


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