Journal feels Murdoch imprint

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Hands-on press baron is making changes at the newspaper

shareholders' vote is today

December 13, 2007|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- In the past few months, Rupert Murdoch has moved into an office at Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal. He has pushed the paper's editors for shorter articles and more hard news. He has personally wooed reporters he wants to keep out of his competitors' hands.

And last week, he oversaw the replacement of top executives, including the Journal's publisher, with his own lieutenants.

And he hasn't even bought the company yet.

That will change today, when in all likelihood shareholders will vote to approve the sale of Dow Jones to Murdoch's company, the News Corp. But Murdoch has already seized the reins of Dow Jones and the Journal, setting in motion what amounts to an overhaul of the look, content and staff of one of the world's most prized newspapers.

"He's not wasting any time," said one Dow Jones executive who, like most of the people interviewed, asked for anonymity. "He's already calling the shots, making decisions. We know that's his MO, but it's amazing to see."

For the Journal's editors and reporters, this is a time of anxiety and anticipation about will happen when more than a century of independent family ownership reaches its end. During the protracted takeover battle last spring and summer, many of them expressed concern that Murdoch would shape the newspaper's news pages to promote his business and political interests -- a News Corp. practice that the Journal documented in a long article -- or simply cheapen the august paper.

But Murdoch also pledged to open the purse strings to expand the Journal's reach, a prospect that many people welcome at a newspaper with years of stagnant advertising revenue. Already, the Journal has offered significant raises to journalists it wants to hire and to some who were considering leaving the paper, with Murdoch personally asking some reporters to stay.

The takeover puts vast resources behind a newspaper that is marginally profitable at best, in part because it has defied the industry trends of cutting staff and circulation. The News Corp. has $29 billion in annual revenue, compared with $2 billion for Dow Jones, and Murdoch has shown repeatedly that he is willing to invest in his properties -- even to take heavy losses on some of them.

With a bodyguard and his longtime secretary in tow -- as well as the occasional News Corp. executive -- Murdoch has been a frequent presence in Dow Jones offices, meeting with executives, the editorial page editor of the Journal, Paul A. Gigot, and, in the main newsroom two floors below, Marcus W. Brauchli, the managing editor.

In a handful of walks through the newsroom and a visit to the Journal's printing plant in South Brunswick, N.J., Murdoch, 76, has revealed little about his intentions, employees say. But they add that at each stop, he has asked questions about their work and displayed an astonishing command of detail about what they do, from production schedules to running the presses.

There are firm plans to eliminate the newspaper's Marketplace section containing articles on business trends and technology in the first half of next year, with a new section taking its place, according to people at Dow Jones and the News Corp. who have been briefed on the changes. The editor of Marketplace, Melinda Beck, recently left that post to write a column on health, and no replacement has been named.

There are also plans to replace dozens of newsroom staff members, while other personnel changes reflecting Murdoch's priorities have begun, including beefing up the Washington bureau and shopping for reporters and editors to hire away from the Journal's competitors.

People close to top Dow Jones executives say that it has been made clear to them that they would be replaced almost immediately, either to consolidate operations with the News Corp. or to put Murdoch loyalists in control, or both. The first confirmation came last week, when Dow Jones announced that Richard F. Zannino, the chief executive officer, and L. Gordon Crovitz, the publisher of the Journal, would leave their posts.

The Journal will let go of two dozen to three dozen people on its news staff of about 750, probably through buyouts, officials at both companies say. The aim is not to reduce the head count, which could increase, but to make room for a wave of hiring in areas that Murdoch wants to expand, and, in some cases, simply to be rid of people. Since last summer, at least 10 reporters and editors have left the paper, and some of their jobs remain vacant. Many more, concerned about the paper's new direction, have reached out to other publications about job prospects.

A year from now, the newspaper could have a large contingent of reporters and editors hired under Murdoch not rooted in the newspaper's traditions. They would also be people who did not live through the anxious months when many newsroom employees opposed the takeover and questioned Murdoch's journalistic ethics.

An agreement between Murdoch and the Bancroft family that controlled Dow Jones gives Brauchli, the top newsroom executive, total control over most of the newspaper's content, and over newsroom hiring, firing and job assignments -- at least in theory. But experts have predicted that with control of the Journal's budget, Murdoch would eventually hold sway over the newsroom.

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