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Jan Herman

Jan Herman

Posted: August 1, 2007 02:04 PM

Over the Cliff With Rupe

Is Rupert Murdoch good or bad for The Wall Street Journal? That's the burning question. Today's WSJ editorial assures us, "No sane businessman pays a premium of 67% over the market price for an asset he intends to ruin." Well, nobody has said he intends to ruin it. To use a favorite word of the WSJ editorial board, that's a canard.

Rupe simply intends to run the Journal the way he wants. He has said so himself -- emphatically. No sane businessman pays $5 billion for an asset and does otherwise. Which is no good for the independence of the WSJ news department. I speak from experience. Once upon a time I worked for a newspaper he took over -- the Chicago Sun-Times. He started it on its downhill slide. Downhill? Ha. He drove it over a cliff.

Personally, I had no cause to complain. He leafed through the paper page by page, I was told by an eye witness, and stopped at my Sunday "Hanging Out" column. He read it, pointed to it, and said he wanted "more of that." Which is why, in addition to Sundays, I suddenly had a column on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This suited me fine. I even got along with Charles Wilson -- then the deputy editor of The Times of London, later its editor -- who was temporarily installed as the Sun-Times editor in chief. It was only afterward, when one of Murdoch's chief Australian henchman, Frank Devine, replaced Wilson as the permanent editor that I resigned (following an argument about a new assignment to write a team column modeled on the NY Post's Page Six -- but that's another story).

The Sun-Times is not the Journal and never was. When I worked there, however, it was a really fine daily filled with first-class writing and reporting and a steady diet of major investigative series. Many reporters and editors got out. Not all. Staffers like lifelong Chicagoans Zay Smith, the late Bill Newman and Henry Kisor stayed -- as did others like John Schulian, who remained for a while, and Roger Ebert, who was already a Sun-Times institution -- because they refused to flee to the Tribune or couldn't or had nowhere else to go if they wanted to remain in their hometown. Mike Royko did eventually cross the street, despite his vow that he never would. But that, too, is another story.

Will the staff dissolve at the Journal? Different paper, different times. But I have no doubt same old Rupe, contrary to the opinion of another old Sun-Times hand. Some folks will be elevated, others ignored -- and many will flee while the fleeing is good or not so good. "I expect the Journal will become even more a place of favorites and outcasts," a longtime WSJ reporter says.

A few marquee names will get more dough and some freedom. They'll be promoted on Fox TV, etc., while those with nowhere else to go will slave on, pressed to churn out more and complain less. Those in the middle will flee when they can. Probably quite a few will leave journalism, because what's the point if it isn't fun and means nothing?

I don't think RM cares about any particular staffers at WSJ, but it seems possible that, to the extent the current regime under the very ambitious and generally respected Marcus [Brauchli, the managing editor,] stays intact, they will want to keep people they like in place rather than watch an exodus that will both make it harder to run the newspaper and prove the critics were right about the instant diminution of the Journal's reputation. Once RM's crew insinuate themselves throughout the hierarchy, such attitudes will doubtless change.

Better believe it. And that's no canard.