Howell Raines is back.
The former executive editor of the New York Times has written his first media column for Portfolio, and it’s about—surprise!—the New York Times. It will appear in the April issue that hits newstands later this week. (Online this morning.)
The article, titled "Murdoch v. the Times," examines the paper’s vulnerability, particularly in the wake of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal.
"There is no more important question in American journalism than the future of the Times, and I don’t think the newspaper or the journalistic profession is taking Murdoch in particular or the takeover issue in general seriously enough," he writes.
Mr. Raines’ worst fear is that "Murdoch or some other unsuitable purchaser will then buy the Times."
The column is not an analysis of the paper itself–Bill Keller isn’t mentioned once–but of how the paper’s "bulletproof’ ownership structure under Arthur Sulzberger Jr. might not really be bulletproof at all.
"Could dozens of restless heirs—plus the already unhappy owners of class-A stock—exert enough pressure on six Sulzberger relatives to put the company in play?" he asks.
That’s because there are all sorts of already well-documented problems: aggressive hedge funds; anxiety within the family (or so there must be); Wall Street; Rupert Murdoch. The threat is real enough that he runs down a series of much-speculated scenarios: the paper might be purchased by Google, or Michael Bloomberg, or Donald Graham, or it could go private.
Mr. Raines is an outsider, so the article resembles nothing like the 20,000 word column that he wrote for the Atlantic in 2004, in which he exhaustively relayed inside anecdotes and detailed how the Times was essentially a broken newspaper when he took the helm in 2001. Nor does he offer any analysis of the paper’s recent business moves, or an assessment of its players. (In the 2004 article, Mr. Raines praises CEO Janet Robinson, but we don’t know how he feels now).
Instead, he airs familiar concerns that the paper might fall to outside pressure and that it "seems way too relaxed" about the Murdoch-threat, though he doesn’t explain how they could register more urgency. He calls the Sulzbergers "one of the most admired publishing families ever" and downplays any particular joy at seeing his old boss, Arthur Sulzberger, struggle.
"When Arthur Sulzberger Jr. fired me in 2003, I took quite a beating from media reporters on journalistic issues," he writes. "Since then, I’ve watched Arthur get roughed up by the financial press for his business decisions. Any tendency toward schadenfreude on my part has been offset by two powerful factors. As a Times pensioner, I want the paper to make money under
public-spirited owners. As a reader, I believe a Murdoch takeover of our last independent national newspaper would be a disaster for the trustworthy reporting on which our civic life depends."
He leads his piece by relaying an ancedote about when he met Rupert Murdoch in 2002. He was talking about the the Bancroft-owned Wall Street Journal and Mr. Murdoch gave him this instruction: "You ought to hit them where they live. Go after hard business news and beat them on their strength."
That’s what Mr. Raines–and basically everyone else–figures what Mr. Murdoch will do to the Times. He concludes with this rather colorful (and slightly off-putting) image: "For now, the thing to watch is the newspaper war promised by Murdoch. If his heavy spending on the Journal has the side effect of further depressing Times stock, a lot of cousins [the family] could start looking over their shoulders and fingering their calculators."
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