That’s Capital Topic: Media Economics
So Rupert Murdoch has his eye on Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal and the WSJ’s staff ain’t havin’ it. So they walk out. My oh my, the irony and the righteousness are so thick you’d need a good samurai sword to cut both.
Don’t get me wrong: the WSJ writers have plenty to worry about. Murdoch’s political views aren’t so much of a concern – after all, it’s not like the WSJ is a leftwing rag – but his views go beyond just plain Conservativism. Seriously, when he was asked about his Conservativism by an interviewer, he corrected the chap by describing himself as “an arch-conservative.” Even that isn’t the greatest concern here; it’s Mr. Murdoch’s management style that worries WSJ staffers.
Murdoch has earned a reputation as a micromanager. He’s been known to call newsrooms to find out who wrote, edited, and produced stories (especially those that ruffled his feathers). For a staff of writers known for their professionalism and skill, this kind of second-guessing will not go down well.
Then there’s the whole problem of where and how the WSJ will fit into the Newscorp empire. Anything I say about this is speculative so I won’t dwell on it, but I’d expect his purchase of the WSJ to be about expanding the scope and diversity of his media holdings, rather than trying to integrate the WSJ into what, say, FOX News does or says. There may be some interplay, but if there is, I’d expect that the WSJ would be the source of stories and investigative work. In the long run this may well improve the quality of reporting at FOX News and with newsrooms at Fox’s owned and operated (O&O) stations.
Even though Murdoch has a well-earned reputation as a micromanager, he has also earned a reputation as being one of the shrewdest and most forward-looking of all executives in media over the last twenty years. It seems apt that he owns FOX; he certainly qualifies as being crazy/clever like one. And because he is clever, he may not subject the WSJ to his usual meddling. Don’t get me wrong; Murdoch hasn’t suddenly become a Buddha and let go of his ego. Rather, he’s loyal to his bottom line and even he can see that tampering with the WSJ will destroy the paper’s credibility, its brand, and ultimately, lead to an exodus of writers. Without those three things the paper will not be worth much and it will not be able to command the premium ad rates and almost unique position in the online news world that it currently enjoys. This latter point is especially important; with readership for print declining, and with more readers using online access for their news, Murdoch will want to maintain and nurture WSJ.com. It’s ability to charge for subscribers online, as well as downloads, means it has developed an exceedingly high-value and almost unique online user base. Advertisers cover this kind of truly committed, high-end, and verifiable audience. I don’t think Mr. Murdoch will want to kill the goose that is laying golden eggs. (Although if he did, he would not be the first executive to shoot himself in the foot.)
Through all this I’ve felt more than a bit bemused. Don’t get me wrong; I care deeply about maintaining well written, well edited papers like the WSJ. Moreover, the WSJ reports on business and economics, something most other media outlets don’t do nearly as well. I’m glad they are standing up and protesting. It’s their right and prerogative. It’s also the right thing to do in the situation. But given their fierce defense of the prerogatives of management and rather tepid support for labor, there is a certain “chickens coming home to roost” aspect to all this. And now that the shoe is on the other foot – or rather, now that the shoe is on their feet – what will they say about the impact of mergers and acquisitions on rank-and-file workers? Will they use their bully pulpit to question the rationale of liberal policies of ownership accumulation even in media, where having multiple voices and points of view acts on society in important and special ways?
Clearly, the staff at the Journal has two things that most rank-and-file workers lack and these two weapons may allow them to defend themselves more successfully than most workers can. First, they have considerable information (and informational access) on their situation. Being informed means they can better assess where and how to push back. Second, they have voice. In fact, they have voice and a bullhorn attached to it. And by making noise they may be able to get Murdoch to change his mind, or at least, change his behavior from what it has been in the past.
But beyond all this, I wonder if the WSJ writers might begin to identify a bit more closely with the laborers they write about when they cover the story of a company that is on the block or when a corporate raider swoops in to grab desired assets. I hope they do, not because I’m a big fan of labor (but I’m even less of a fan of management), but rather, so that one of our foremost voices on business and business decision-making might take on a more “fair and balanced” (oops, did I just say that?) view of business and the impact of executive decisions, especially in merger and acquisition negotiations. I hope that this happens, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for the WSJ’s writers to beat the drum for anyone beside themselves.