The Wall Street Journal and the Deathly Hallows

07/24/2007 11:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The endless worrying over whether Murdamort will kill the Wall Street Journal misses the salient point that will really determine the future of the paper: the Journal *is* being killed on Wall Street by the Financial Times. Given that many in the American media seem comfortable with making categorical pronouncements over what will happen when or should Murdamort win control of Dow Jones, I should feel almost as comfortable about pontificating under the thin aegis of disclosing that I am an irregular contributor to the Weekend section of that paper; but, over the past few weeks, I've been asking people who work on Wall Street what they thought of the looming takeover, and while the sample is small, it's larger than me and my thoughts alone.

The general feeling seems to be that over the past five years the Bancrofts have allowed the Journal to spiral into inconsequentiality, while the FT has poured its resources into much more aggressive and insightful coverage of finance. Whether or not that is qualitatively or quantitatively true, I cannot say; but the perception is that the FT is covering bonds, the subprime fiasco in an authoritative, news-breaking way that the WSJ and other papers are not. And such a perception is its own bull market on Wall Street for the FT -- and for Murdoch taking over the Journal to restore its competitive edge.

The question, of course, is whether Murdamort sees the WSJ primary mission as competing against the FT, or whether he envisages the paper as a print equivalent to FOX News, in which case the vision represented by editorial pages has primacy. And the answer to this question will derive from the complex calculations over which strategic approach will make more money over costing more money relative to the mood of the country.

If the strategy is to beat the rest of the media in covering finance and business, Murdamort will probably have to invest or shift resources to news-breaking reporting. Unlike almost any other beat, finance cannot be covered in a half-baked, semi-accurate way; to do so would destroy the Journal's brand.

But pursuing this strategy could also mean a shift in focus of the editorial pages, too, to reflect more economic analysis: the average Wall Streeter is, one might venture, less interested in whether Europe is trending more or less atheistic than in what trends in the Eurozone mean for he U.S. and world economy. Again, the FT, in the likes of Martin Wolf and Wolfgang Munchau, has a distinct edge.

And what of the alternative approach, the FOXifictioning of the Journal? This may be less likely than many imagine, and not least because of the synergy between the new business channel and the Journal, which would see an influx of talent into FOX should the takeover happen.

One must remember that Murdamort has a keen instinct for the political mood of the country, and what it means for doing business. If the scandal-ridden and incompetence-prone tenure of the British conservative party under John Major has an analogue in the present Bush administration, it is not inconceivable that the Journal could end up endorsing Hillary Clinton -- or whomever, a la Tony Blair, modernized and moderated the Democrats. It's a long shot, perhaps; but I wouldn't feel too cocky if I were on the editorial page staff (and I would be begging for a meeting with Murdamort if I were a Democrat running for president).

If I were to place a bet on what will change in the Journal in the short term, it is that the front-page features, which are rightly held to be among the best reported daily journalism anywhere in the U.S., will shrink and possibly disappear entirely; after all, as former front-page editor James Stewart noted in "Follow the Story," surveys showed that the typical WSJ reader didn't read them.

I would also bet on shorter news stories too, which isn't such a bad thing. Again, one of the virtues of the FT to the Wall Street is that it provides a succinct survey of the world for those without the time to read at leisure.

As to the fate of the Journal editors, Paul Steiger and Paul Gigot, it is difficult to know whether it's "G'day" now or later. Murdamort may be all business all the time, but he is has a deep and sentimental feeling for editors who are Australian.