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Franchise Player

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When The New York Observer broke the news that Jeffrey McCracken, The Wall Street Journal's mergers and acquisitions reporter, was leaving the paper for Bloomberg, it called the deal beat "one of the biggest and most vital franchises at the Journal." Certainly, that was true in the heady dealmaking days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Steve Lipin, followed by Nik Deogun, regularly broke big M&A news on the paper's front page, helped in part by their own fat Rolodexes and dogged reporting, as well as the deal community's willingness to provide exclusive leaks to the Journal in exchange for excellent story placement. The market loved M&A in those days and, by extension, deal scoops, so it made sense that the nation's premier source of Wall Street and financial news would do all it could to own that coverage.

But today, calling the deal beat one of the Journal's "most vital franchises" seems a bit of a stretch. The M&A market isn't exactly going gangbusters, and deals and the people who make them are about as popular as a subprime mortgage on a McMansion in San Diego. Moreover, it's unclear how important the M&A beat is to The Wall Street Journal under Rupert Murdoch, who is seeking to transform the paper from a business must-have into a general interest read, complete with sports coverage, restaurant reviews and 12 pages dedicated to local New York news. "Deals and Dealmakers," formerly a fixture of the paper's once hard-charging Money & Investing section, seems to have been gutted; these days, you're just as likely to stumble across M&A coverage in the Marketplace section -- or anywhere else in the paper, for that matter. Dennis Berman's allegedly biweekly column, "The Game," hadn't appeared for an entire month before resurfacing on April 13th with a non-jumper on an 81-year-old Felix Rohatyn. Even the Journal's once-chatty Deal Journal blog is a shadow of its former, informative self.

Of course, this could all change if the deal markets heat up and Murdoch's archrival, The New York Times, beats the Journal on a beat his paper used to own. Indeed, the Journal could not have been too pleased a couple of weeks back when it had to credit the Times for breaking the news that United Airlines and US Air were in merger talks -- a scoop that the Times placed prominently on its front page. That piece's main author, Andrew Ross Sorkin, is the most recent example of a reporter who has ridden the M&A beat to broader fame and fortune, not to mention a bestselling book on the financial crisis.

Sorkin's rise is instructive because of how much it differs from Lipin's a decade ago. Lipin trafficked almost exclusively in big-time M&A during his Journal career and appeared almost exclusively in print; Sorkin is not only multichannel -- print, online, TV, a book -- but he has used the deal beat as a springboard to cover and opine on finance and almost everything that entails, from the industry's big machers to policy and regulation, including too-big-to-fail. Following in the footsteps of The Daily Deal and the magazine you are reading now, Sorkin's DealBook Web site recognized the existence of a far-flung and seemingly unrelated community of people -- M&A bankers, venture capitalists, bankruptcy attorneys, lenders, antitrust experts, etc. -- united by the common thread of dealmaking.

By now, scores of other media outlets, both traditional and nontraditional, have cottoned onto that community, making any attempt by the Journal, post-McCracken, to reclaim dominance of the deal-reporting franchise a difficult proposition at best. Ten years ago, the Financial Times was considered feisty when it used its Web site to post early takes on merger scoops, sometimes spoiling its competitors' print embargoes; today, breaking deal news online is de rigueur and should ideally be followed by appearances on TV, a continuing stream of opinionated blog posts and perhaps even some well-trafficked tweets. In effect, the sheer number of outlets both diminishes the value of a placement from the corporate side and reduces the bragging rights from the editorial side.

Given all that, it remains to be seen if M&A, even if it does come roaring back (as it will eventually), could once again be a vital and nearly exclusive franchise of one newspaper like The Wall Street Journal. In Lipin's day, the Journal owned deal coverage in part by granting his scoops great play in the paper. But will that be enough in an always-on, commentator-driven media world? Probably not.

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Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.