By Chet Yarbrough
REVIEW UPDATED 8/18/2016
Murdoch and Sulzberger are media moguls with conservative and liberal biases that serve their consumer cohorts. One may argue that newspapers only report the facts (except on the editorial page) but choosing the facts. like recording historical events, is inherently biased. Sarah Ellison succinctly reports big changes in the newspaper industry in her book “War at the Wall Street Journal”. The word “War” in the title exaggerates the reality of change but she captures some of what is happening in the industry.
Exaggeration aside, Ellison writes a very straight forward and interesting account of the takeover of the “Wall Street Journal” by Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation.
The eventual integration of newspapers with the internet guarantees the industry’s future. Media longevity is a matter of change; i.e. newspapers did not disappear with the advent of radio and radio did not disappear with the advent of television; they adapted, they changed. Murdoch is riding a media crest of summarized news. Gannett Corporation has surfed that crest for years with “USA Today”.
Newspaper readers who stand and wait will be served. “The New York Times” competes with “USA Today” by being different; i.e. by offering longer in-depth news articles. “The New York Times” will not fail but its market share will be smaller; at least until they adjust to demands of the modern market.
Ellison’s presentation does not have the depth and breadth of Halberstram’s 1980,’s book about media moguls (“The Powers That Be”) but it does provide insight to changes that are happening in the newspaper industry.
Murdoch is characterized by some as a devil but Ellison’s picture of Murdoch is not horned or tailed. Murdoch is not painted as a white knight but Ellison’s reporting suggests rescuer is a more apt description. The Wall Street Journal like every mass circulation newspaper in the nation is in the same life boat.
Internet torpedoes and their communication speed have ripped holes in the “Chicago Tribune”, “Philadelphia Enquirer”, and “Los Angeles Times”. Even the “Washington Post” ( acquired by Jeff Bezos) and “New York Times” are taking on water.
Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of “The Las Vegas Review Journal” is widely reported as a nefarious act. It is more likely an acquisition of an asset by a inept small-town publishing consultant on the fringes of the industry; acting for Adelson. At worst, the circumstances of purchase show an inept acquisition consultant providing bad advice to a buyer.
Adelson is not the only wealthy American to own a newspaper. If the content of the paper is influenced by its owner’s biases, it will be measured against the bias of its readers and their willingness to buy it. Neither newspaper reporters, writers, or publishers are horned or tailed. They, like all human beings, are subject to all the sins of humankind; i.e. every human being is capable of succumbing to the lure of money, power, and prestige. The readers will decide whether they want to continue reading a paper that does not conform to their world view.
In depth newspaper stories are evolving. The “Wall Street Journal” is becoming “Today-ized” because it is following market demand for short stories; the need for in-depth reporting remains but not just in daily newspapers. In depth reporting has been democratized; i.e., individuals will seek their own depth; if not in the daily paper, in the internet. The complication for newspapers is integration and monetization of web-based reporting for those interested in more detail. The ideal role of daily newspapers will be to provide enough accurate and unbiased (a word used advisedly) investigative reporting to generate interest in knowing more.
Murdoch over pays for the “Wall Street Journal” for the wrong reasons but with the right results. Time will tell whether Adelson did the same. The Wall Street Journal is serving its customers better now than before Murdoch’s takeover.