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Sad Day for Journalism if Murdoch Swallows Newsday

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Be afraid... be very afraid.

Remember Charles Foster Kane? The fictional newspaper publisher/editor in Citizen Kane who ran his publications on whim, punishing his enemies and rewarding his friends?

Lost in the flurry of the Pennsylvania primary and who's more elite than whom, the visit to America by the Pope, and $120-a-barrel crude oil was a story that should bring a tear to the eye of any journalist worth his salt, or any lover of independent journalism in this country.

Rupert Murdoch, chairman and managing director of News Corporation, owner of British tabloids, the Star supermarket tabloid, Sky Television, the Fox Network, the New York Post, and, most recently, Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, appears ready to gobble up Long Island's Newsday.

Newsday, founded by Alicia Patterson in 1940 and part of the ill-fated Tribune Company stable, is a jewel among suburban newspapers. Winner of 19 Pulitzer Prizes and countless other journalistic awards, it is probably a blessing that Bob Greene, the renowned Newsday investigative reporter, who assembled and ran an investigative team that became a model for such endeavors at countless other papers and led the paper to two public service Pulitzers, died two weeks ago.

With a circulation of close to 400,000 mostly on Long Island and in Queens, the paper never settled for the role of a suburban cover-the-garden-club outlet. It gave the big boys -- the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the city's tabloids -- a run for their money. This was particularly so when, flush with cash and ambition, it began New York Newsday in the five boroughs in 1985. (Never able to compete, the city experiment was pretty much finished by 1995.) Onetime home to Jimmy Breslin, Gail Collins, Pete Hamill, Sydney Schanberg and others, it was a thoughtful, interesting, serious read, but one which never forgot its roots and covered the local governments with a vengeance that the city publications just could never work up a deep interest in.

So, why assume this would change under the ownership of Murdoch? First is the fact that should Murdoch's $580 million bid to cash-starved Sam Zell be successful, it would put in one media mogul's hands the second-largest circulation paper in the country (Journal), the sixth (Post) and the 10th (Newsday). It was precisely this concentration of media ownership that the Federal Communications Commission's cross-ownership rules were designed to prevent. Why? Because the idea of a free press -- and the idea of antitrust regulation -- is to offer news consumers a broad panoply of angles, tones , views and ideas in the news they can access. So, even with the depth and breadth of media offerings in New York, having one owner directing news coverage of three of the largest publications cannot help but narrow the landscape.

Second, Murdoch is not known to be a hands-off owner who declares, "You do the journalism; I'll worry about paying the bills." He has basically turned the Post into a frothier, more rabid version of Fox News with a great gossip section. Yesterday, he forced out Wall Street Journal editor Marcus Brauchli four months after he took over the paper. While Murdoch has not yet Post-ified the Journal, hang on. He has removed the beloved A-head quirky feature from page one, plans to add more politics and sports, and is planning a glossy, luxury lifestyle magazine. In a sense, he is de-business-fying the Journal. Maybe this makes business sense, but it sure is reducing the options for readers -- do we really need another New York Times?

Now, if this is what Murdoch is planning for the Wall Street Journal, with its circulation of more than 2 million intensely devoted readers, its determined and unionized staff and its preeminent position among the country's news publications, what prayer is there for Newsday -- a small suburban gem that nurtures writers, investigative reporters and columnists, and takes its watchdog role seriously?

And what is the point of FCC regulation and antitrust theory if one man can rule the roost in even the nation's largest media market with no restrictions on his acquisitiveness? Is anyone asking whether this benefits the viewers and the readers? Does anyone care whether the result will be better journalism? More news coverage? Increased awareness and insight? Somehow, I think I know the answer.