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Originally published Friday, December 12, 2008 at 1:46 PM

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Murdoch's Journal bigger, flashier; critics warm

When Rupert Murdoch took control of The Wall Street Journal a year ago Saturday, the austere, 119-year-old newspaper joined a media empire that includes Fox News Channel and a British tabloid best known for Page Three photographs of topless women.

AP Business Writer


When Rupert Murdoch took control of The Wall Street Journal a year ago Saturday, the austere, 119-year-old newspaper joined a media empire that includes Fox News Channel and a British tabloid best known for Page Three photographs of topless women.

The sale's fiercest critics warned of a downward spiral for the Journal, noting that Murdoch has sometimes used his media properties to push his views. After his company, News Corp., bought the New York Post in 1976, for instance, the liberal tabloid quickly turned into a conservative mouthpiece with feisty headlines.

A year later, some of those critics have warmed.

Although the Internet and the recession sent the entire newspaper industry into a tailspin, leading many publications to make steep job cuts, the Journal has increased its staff and the number of pages it prints each day.

It has expanded its coverage, placed more breaking news on the front page and increased the size of graphics and photos. And large headlines across the entire top of the front page - used only three times ever before September - now appear regularly.

As it challenges other major papers such as The New York Times and tries to draw more readers in print and online, the Journal under Murdoch and new editor Robert Thomson is trying to shed its reputation as a "second read," a place to find financial stories to supplement general coverage elsewhere.

The thinking is that business readers pressed for time would no longer have to first turn to the Times or their local paper for basic coverage, and the Journal could draw a new breed of readers who used to associate the Journal with, well, Wall Street.

The new team won praise even from one-time detractors.

"Because I was one of the leading public critics ... I should be honorable and admit that (Murdoch) and Robert Thomson have done a much better job preserving the editorial quality of The Wall Street Journal than I thought they would do," said Jim Ottaway Jr., a former board member at the Journal's parent, Dow Jones & Co.

Without the sale, the Journal "would be in much worse shape today because of the advertising recession," said Ottaway, whose family cast its 7 percent voting interest against the sale.

Thomson, brought in from The Times of London, also owned by News Corp., said there is "unrealized potential" in the Journal and the rest of Dow Jones, which includes the MarketWatch Web site and Barron's financial magazine.

The road to owning the Journal, the No. 2 paper in the United States as gauged by circulation after Gannett Co.'s USA Today, wasn't easy for Murdoch.


Members of the family that held a controlling stake in Dow Jones were deeply divided over Murdoch's $5 billion-plus offer. But enough members of the Bancroft family ultimately agreed to sell, and News Corp. took over Dow Jones on Dec. 13, 2007.

Les Hinton, a longtime Murdoch loyalist installed as Dow Jones' new chief executive that day, said he arrived with trepidation.

"We felt like we were the barbarians in the elevator," Hinton said in his corner office in the heart of the world's financial capital. "We'd been, I suppose, characterized as being pretty disagreeable prospective owners."

But Hinton said he found staffers open-minded, welcoming a lift from "a mild clinical depression" that came from being part of "a small public company living in a very competitive world."

News Corp. kept many top editors in place, though Managing Editor Marcus Brauchli resigned in April, saying the new owners should have a manager of their choosing. Brauchli, now executive editor of The Washington Post, declined comment for this article.

The changes so far haven't engendered ethical complaints over coverage, said Thomas Bray, chairman of an editorial-integrity committee created as a condition of support from some of the Bancroft family. Journal editors say they haven't changed how they cover Murdoch or News Corp., save for adding a disclaimer.

Murdoch was unavailable for an interview, a News Corp. spokesman said.

Dow Jones had been profitable, Hinton said, but it couldn't take many risks as a standalone company without worrying about depressing dividends and share prices. Now, although News Corp.'s stock has shed 60 percent since the takeover, there is plenty of money in the company's $5 billion cash reserves to fund initiatives at the Journal through the recession.

Michael Williams, who joined the paper in 1992 and is now Page One editor, agreed that he was worried about the paper's financial viability before it was sold.

"After the sale, I wasn't," Williams said. "Like any big media company, there are challenges, but we now have an owner who loves newspapers."

Dozens of jobs were cut as the Journal merged print and online editing tasks as part of a push for various Dow Jones units to work more closely together. But total staff has grown by about 20, to 760, as the Journal boosts its international and political coverage.

As the Journal broadens its front page, less room remains for company and industry news - 21 percent this year, compared with 30 percent last year, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Criticism persists about that shift. Gone or played down are the Journal's "leders" - longer investigative pieces that often took weeks or months to complete and used to run at the top of the front page.

"No one can argue against more, except more is less somewhere else," said Dean Starkman, a former Journal reporter who now runs Columbia Journalism Review's business-press critique, The Audit. "They are playing things below the fold that are much better than the stuff that is the news of the day."

Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said the Journal's shift will not threaten his paper's prominence.

"The Journal remains an excellent paper and a formidable competitor," Keller said in an e-mail. "But, frankly, it troubles me less than it did two years ago. Journalistically, I think they strayed from their core mission."

Journal editors note the paper has expanded by four pages to fit the additional coverage, and they insist they haven't curtailed overall financial reporting.

Recognizing the increased competition, the Times this year has boosted its business and technology coverage online, expanding staff there despite cuts elsewhere.

The Journal, meanwhile, introduced software for reading its stories on mobile devices, revamped its Web site and launched a glossy magazine to lure high-end advertisers. Those efforts, already in the works, accelerated under Murdoch.

The newspaper, which didn't begin to use photos until 1997, and not regularly in weekday editions until 2007, brought in a design expert from The Times of London in part to help jazz up the front page in hopes of boosting newsstand sales.

Over the past year, despite price hikes, the Journal saw a 2.4 percent increase in individually paid sales - the type coveted by advertisers. Its total circulation was flat at 2 million as papers elsewhere shed sales. The Journal also saw gains in online traffic, though remains the leading newspaper Web site, according to comScore.

News Corp. abandoned the idea of making the Journal's entire site available for free, supported by ads, and it is exploring new services to sell.

Year Two should be just as busy, editor Thomson said.

"We're still in the early stages of world domination."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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