Sarah Ellison's War at the Wall Street Journal is more dramatic than Dave Kindred's nostalgic Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post, yet both qualify as timely reports from the front lines, where embattled daily newspapers struggle to survive. The "enemy"? The Internet, of course, and its nonstop stream of (mostly) free news. In addressing the precarious future of serious journalism, both authors show why newspapers still seem indispensable — at least to those of us who grew up reading them.
As a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Ellison covered the 2007 sale of the paper by the Bancroft family to Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch. (She left the paper that same year to write this book.) Ellison enjoyed extraordinary access to the key players, and the result is a 360-degree view of what went down. She tells a complex but fast-moving story, with a rich cast of engaging characters.
At one time it would have been unthinkable for a swashbuckling foreigner to capture a crown jewel of American journalism. But given the economic forces roiling the newspaper industry (plummeting circulation and ad revenue, most of it attributable to the ascendance of online news), Murdoch ironically emerged as the last, best hope for saving the storied publication.
The wealthy Bancrofts had been benign but absentee landlords. They never interfered with editorial operations, nor did they concern themselves overmuch with business decisions. Eventually, though, a couple of the clan's younger members grew dismayed at the amount of money being lost by Dow Jones, the paper's parent company. They vowed to do whatever was necessary to preserve their personal fortunes.
Enter Rupert Murdoch, with an offer of about $5 billion for Dow Jones — some $2 billion more than its true value, according to sources. Why so much? His News Corporation owned diverse media properties, but Murdoch, born into a newspaper family, "loved to think of himself as a newspaperman at heart," Ellison writes. He had coveted the Journal for years, and now he was eager to use it as a weapon to fight an old foe, The New York Times.
Though a few of the 35 Bancrofts opposed a Murdoch takeover, most were happy to take his money. By 2007 the newspaper business was in disarray, Ellison writes, and "the [Journal's] alternatives…were grim." Had the family acted earlier — before the industry's precipitate decline — there might have been more suitors. Now, though, "[the Bancrofts] judged Murdoch not solely on his merits but against the dearth of other options." In the end, there wasn't much resistance to Murdoch's taking the reins.
Murdoch quickly replaced the Journal's top editor, Marcus Brauchli, with loyal News Corp. veteran Robert Thomson. Other changes followed: shorter stories, fewer investigative pieces, and a front page that softened its traditional focus on business to carry the big news of the day. Grievously, writes Ellison, "feature stories that had gestated for months and [that had] been precisely edited for song and nuance [were] gone."
On the plus side, The Wall Street Journal is still standing. And even the casual reader can see that it routinely does good. Harold Evans, famously ousted by Murdoch as editor of The Times of London, has allowed that "The Journal is a much-improved newspaper."
Marcus Brauchli resurfaces, none the worse for wear, in Kindred's Morning Miracle. After resigning quietly from the Journal and collecting some $6 million from Murdoch, he landed the job of executive editor at The Washington Post. But Brauchli finds no champion in Kindred, who is especially critical of the new editor's role in a benighted scheme hatched by the Post's young publisher, Katharine Weymouth, to sponsor "salons" where advertisers would pay for the privilege of meeting Washington's power elite — and the paper's own edit staff.