Rupert Murdoch appears to be a step closer to acquiring The Wall Street Journal, a move that would set off what promises to be culture shock at the venerable financial news institution. The Journal's parent, Dow Jones & Co., and Murdoch's News Corp. have agreed in principle on a set of editorial protections for The Wall Street Journal, according to a report on WSJ.com. Protecting the editorial integrity of The Wall Street Journal has been a key sticking point with Dow Jones's controlling family, the Bancrofts. It remains to be seen whether the family will accept the terms of the editorial agreement, which have not yet been disclosed by either company.
Media circles have been abuzz with speculation that Dow Jones and News Corp. could reach an agreement on Murdoch's proposed $60-a-share, or $5 billion, acquisition of Dow Jones within days. A deal for the Journal would mark the end of more than 100 years of control by the heirs of Clarence Barron, credited as the father of modern financial journalism. But the ultimate outcome—despite a sense of inevitability now surrounding the proposed transaction—is still uncertain. With control of 64 percent of the company's shares, the Bancrofts alone can decide the fate of Dow Jones. And the family—or at least, a formidable contingent—remains anxious about Murdoch's reputation for interfering in the editorial decisions of his media outlets, mostly as a way of promoting his business and political interests.
But the family is hardly the only quarter where there's concern. Another significant shareholder, James Ottaway, has been especially vocal in his opposition to a Murdoch acquisition and is expected to cast his 5 percent vote against a transaction. And the Journal's rank and file is making its doubts abundantly clear: at an annual awards dinner for financial journalists in New York on Monday, a number of Wall Street Journal winners took to the stage and in almost funereal tones alluded to what life would be like under Murdoch. (The union representing Journal reporters had tried to bring in a white-knight buyer to rescue the Journal from Murdoch, but to no avail.)
Murdoch and his lieutenants have recoiled at the negative characterization of their editorial practices. In recent weeks, he has used press interviews to explain, dismiss or defend past actions often cited as evidence of his self-interested interference in editorial matters at his publishing operations.
Murdoch's most important effect on the Journal's enviable journalistic culture probably has little to do with the possiblity of his ordering up a story that's, say, friendly to the Chinese governement. For a news organization that has been the master of its fate, with almost carte blanche independence from the Bancrofts, The Wall Street Journal would have to adapt to the aggressive business culture of perhaps the most engaged media owner and steward of his time. Murdoch has been a determined and decisive expansionist for decades now, spreading across the globe and into every segment of the business by seizing opportunities and using shrewd strategems. Now, as his extraordinarily lavish offer for Dow Jones indicates, he has targeted financial and business journalism with similar zealousness.
For Journal editors and writers, life under Murdoch would likely mean less control over their work. Suspicion and scrutiny is certain to follow Murduch after a purchase of the Journal. And that fact—coupled with the threat of irreparable damage to the Journal's integrity if Murdoch does cross the line—could help restrain any of the mogul's impulses for biased reporting, as much as any formal accord.
But bent on dominating markets, Murdoch is almost certain to control the WSJ brand and stories prepared by the newspaper in a way that benefits his obvious goal of conquering the business of financial journalism. It's almost certain, for instance, that he would negotiate an end to Dow Jones's years-long arrangement with CNBC, under which the network has exclusive access to Journal reporters and materials, since Murdoch has plans to launch a rival network by the end of the year.
Another issue to be grappled with, if and when Murdoch gets the Journal: which of News Corp.'s many news outlets will get a story first? Let's say one of the Journal's reporters gets a scoop on the next CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Murdoch could order that the story break simultaneously on the new Fox Business News Channel,FoxBusiness.com (or whatever the eventual name is) and WSJ.com. Given the sweep of Murdoch's empire, the potential iterations are impressive: if he decides he wants a half-hour WSJ report on BskyB in the U.K., he could order it up in the blink of an eye, and relocate the WSJ journalist to make it happen just as quickly. And when journalists phone him for an interview about the development, guess which outlet he'll be talking to first? The Rupert Murdoch Wall Street Journal, of course.