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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."
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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.
Morning Miracle is both a love letter to newspapers and an elegy for days long gone. A former sports columnist at the Post, Kindred occasionally waxes hokey ("…what the hell was going on was that newspapers were going to hell") or just plain grumpy: "Now it's Web this, iPhone that," he grouses at one point.
He's at his best when he lets high-flying Post writers tell how they got that story. Dana Priest and Annie Hull, for example, reveal what went into their groundbreaking exposé of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the deplorable conditions for wounded soldiers there. And Anthony Shadid revisits his interview with an Iraqi father who executed his own son (the younger man had been identified as an informer).
Kindred also nails what's wrong with newspapers in general, and with the Post in particular. In financial terms, the Post's newspaper division lost $192.7 million in 2008. In human terms, the paper imposed hiring freezes and offered even its veteran employees multiple buyouts, which together yielded a demoralizing 50 percent cut in the newsroom staff.
Yet The Washington Post is in better shape today than many of its peers. Its owners, the Grahams, are more involved — and more enlightened — than the Journal’s Bancrofts ever were. And thanks to a canny purchase back in 1984, the Washington Post Company nets as much as $150 million each year from its test-prep subsidiary, Kaplan Inc.
So now what? Kindred lets the Post's brightest star, Bob Woodward, have the near-final word. Still breaking news almost 40 years after he and Carl Bernstein uncovered the Watergate scandal, Woodward predicts that "the information business will continue to exist…. How [the news] is delivered, who delivers it, what you pay for it — those are questions no one has figured out."
Perhaps not — but we can make some educated guesses. In a speech on September 8, the publisher of The New York Times conceded that the print version of the paper will cease to exist one day. Most insiders tacitly accept this, but the candor of his remark raised eyebrows.
Even the most print-besotted among us, it appears, must embrace the digital future. Let's hope there will be enough resources, and sufficient will, for online news organizations of the next generation to cover any future Watergates.
Evelyn Renold, a writer and editorial consultant in New York, worked as a staff editor at Newsday and The New York Daily News.