THE BLOG
07/31/2015 02:41 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

Seven Years Later: What Exactly Did Rupert Murdoch Do To The Wall Street Journal?

Seven years ago, Rupert Murdoch ended the 105-year-long ownership of the Wall Street Journal by the Bancroft family, when he bought the paper for $5 billion.

Employees, readers, and investors were terrified that Murdoch might turn the Journal into, say, the New York Post, maybe even with half-naked starlets on page 3.

Instead, Murdoch's determination to keep print journalism alive may have been the best thing that ever happened to the Journal.

Sarah Ellison, a former Journal reporter, wrote a highly regarded, captivating book, War At The Wall Street Journal, that captured the drama, intensity, corporate infighting, and financial deal-making that left the Journal in Murdoch's hands.

I interviewed Ellison this week to see how different the Journal has become since Murdoch's acquisition.

Michael: It's now seven years since Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal. Where is the paper today?

Sarah: The Journal has just come through, very recently, a desert, winning no Pulitzer Prizes since the Murdoch takeover. The feeling in the newsroom was that there was some kind of vendetta against Rupert Murdoch; that he was not approved of by the elite journalistic establishment and the people who run the Pulitzer board.

So there's a real sense of relief now with that Pulitzer win, among people in the newsroom who have been working there this entire time. Some of them were there before Rupert Murdoch took over the paper. That's a very positive morale booster for them.

Rupert Murdoch and the people who came to the paper with him would never say they cared about winning a Pulitzer. But they do.

Michael: Is it a divided newsroom - those who worked under the Bancrofts and those who arrived with or after Murdoch?

Sarah: It's not a divided newsroom, but the bloodlines of the Wall Street Journal are still very clear. People there under the old regime feel separate from the people who came to the paper either with Murdoch or after Murdoch. Even though the paper has changed significantly since that acquisition, and a lot of new people have come, the bloodlines are clear. You know the people who were working there under Bancroft family ownership and the people who weren't.

Michael: Obviously, the newspaper landscape in general has changed radically in the last seven years.

Sarah: The acquisition was timed right before the financial crisis, so the notion that he grossly overpaid for the paper was immediately obvious. It's only become more so as lots and lots of other papers have either closed down or been gutted in really important but significant ways. It's almost an unrecognizable media landscape.

Michael: What's changed in terms of the Journal's news coverage?

Sarah: There's no question that the paper used to do much more business coverage. It used to be a watchdog on the corporate world, on American business. Since Murdoch's acquisition, it's developed much more of a financial focus. There's very little of what used to be the meat and potatoes corporate coverage that made up the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

These were the stories that people who worked for Proctor & Gamble or GE really wanted to read every day, because they were reading about their competitors and they were reading about their own industries. That was never an interest of Murdoch's. He was much more interested in the geopolitical landscape and finance. You can definitely see that in the paper.

Michael: Any other changes in news coverage that you see?

Sarah: It's tilted rightward politically. Murdoch came in believing the newsroom was left-leaning and his appointed editor set out to correct that.

Michael: Has Murdoch influenced the Journal's editorial page?

Sarah: The editorial page has stayed true to itself this entire time. There was always a real wall between the news section and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, and that continues to exist. The same editor is editing the editorial pages as when I was a reporter. He's probably one of the more independent-minded people in that whole news organization. And so I don't think that that has changed.

The concern was that Murdoch would soften it, that he would make it somehow more corporate, more expedient from a business perspective; he might somehow be compromise the politics of it. And I'm not aware of that happening.

Michael: The irony is that the people at the Journal feared that Murdoch would gut the paper. Instead, he's kept it alive and thriving.

Sarah: That's partly true. I'm not so sure they feared he would gut it as that he would change something essential about it.

Michael: You wrote that his goal when, one of his goals when he bought the paper was to have it be the preeminent national paper and compete with the New York Times. How did that competition work out?

Sarah: The Wall Street Journal is the biggest newspaper in the country now. It surpassed USA Today in terms of national circulation. But I don't see it having unseated the New York Times as the paper of record.

Michael: What's happening at the Times? Aren't they in the same position with the Sulzberger family ownership that the Journal was seven years ago with the Bancrofts?

Sarah: I would think there's a tremendous amount of anxiety at a place like the New York Times about what would happen if the Sulzbergers would ever sell. There's all sorts of anxiety in newsrooms regardless. There's no shortage of it.

Michael: Was there an expectation that Murdoch would devote most or even all of his time to overseeing the Journal? It was a dream of his for decades to buy the paper.

Sarah: There was one theory that he was going to buy the Wall Street Journal and then spend his retirement playing around with it. The Wall Street Journal was certainly supposed to be the capstone of his career. Unfortunately, the phone hacking crisis in London took up some of his time not long after the acquisition of the Wall Street Journal. That was a major event that he had to spend a lot of time and money containing.

Then, of course, there's the whole question of his legacy and a family, of who's going to succeed him. It's my sense that that's his real focus now. He's trying to shepherd the transition to his sons.

Michael: Murdoch paid $5 billion for the Journal. Do you think that if you could get him at two in the morning, he'd admit that he might have perhaps have overpaid?

Sarah: I don't think it'd be a problem to get him to admit that he overpaid, but I don't think that remorse is something he indulges in that much. So I think he'd be very well aware that he could have gotten a much better deal. I think he's clear about that, absolutely.

Michael: Overall, what's Murdoch's influence been on the Journal?

Sarah: It's still a great paper, and you can't ignore the fact that it has maintained a newsroom at a time when many, many newspapers have hollowed out. One of Murdoch's great legacies will be that he is someone who believed in the newspaper business. That was something that defined him back in 2007 when the deal happened, but it makes him almost unique today. And for that, I think the people who are still at the Wall Street Journal are very grateful.