Marcus Brauchli’s last supper with The Wall Street Journal had been a good one.
Seated at a table in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on 22nd Street NW in Washington, D.C., on the evening of April 21, he’d been offered a roasted red apple stuffed with bleu-cheese mousse; a Vidalia onion-crusted petite filet mignon with baby turnips; a chocolate mousse bombe with a dark chocolate crème brûlée center; and two wines, a 2006 California Chardonnay and a 2006 Pinot Noir.
Hosting was the Atlantic Council, the public-policy think tank run by Mr. Brauchli’s former Journal colleague, Fred Kempe. Tony Blair was there! But so were a lot of his colleagues from years of working at The Journal. Next to him was John Bussey, who at one time was his assigning editor on the foreign desk; more recently, thanks to Mr. Brauchli’s elevation 11 months before to the top editorial position at The Journal, it was Mr. Brauchli who assigned Mr. Bussey to the increasingly important role of Washington bureau chief.
Journal editors and reporters, past and present, had packed the joint. Editors Jerry Seib, David Wessel and Alan Murray were there, as was Mr. Brauchli’s popular predecessor, Paul Steiger; former Journal star Larry Ingrassia, now the business editor for The Journal’s new great rival, The New York Times, was there; reporter Sarah Ellison was recording the awards dinner for posterity for her book about Mr. Brauchli’s new boss, Rupert Murdoch. The Australian-born international media megalith, the owner of News Corporation, and, as of December 2007, the owner of The Journal, was one of the night’s honorees, getting an award for his business smarts. He was sitting two tables away.
It was a long evening, and Mr. Brauchli must have been pretty tired from his week spent traveling the globe. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, there was the glossy insert magazine, WSJ., to sell to advertisers—and an increasingly impatient and nervous group of reporters covering Hollywood, Entertainment and Silicon Valley for the paper to soothe and appease. Not long before he’d journeyed to China.
But the long dinner was scarcely over, a little after 8:52 p.m., when the room started buzzing like crazy. The Journal-ists were all jumping up from their seats and waving their BlackBerrys at each other. Time magazine’s Web site—Time!—was reporting that Mr. Brauchli was officially out of a job.
Mr. Brauchli, who quickly figured out what was going on, kept his seat for about an hour as the proceedings continued, and just as the ceremony was drawing to a close around 10 p.m. suddenly popped out of his seat.
But The Times’ Mr. Ingrassia leapt from his place and ran after him to ask him about the news.
“I can’t talk,” Mr. Brauchli told his former colleague.
It had been a nearly impossible 11 months for Mr. Brauchli, and Mr. Ingrassia’s scrappy stringing effort only goes to show how personal the takeover of The Wall Street Journal—and the declarations of newspaper war by Mr. Murdoch—has become.
But if it had seemed for weeks like the war that would never start—don’t they all?—suddenly reports of gunfire were ringing in everyone’s ears. Now, Mr. Murdoch’s war had begun.
Within the last week, on visits to two West Coast bureaus, reporters there painted a picture of a dispirited editor who looked and sounded trapped by conflicting visions for the newspaper. On a trip to the San Francisco bureau on April 16, the low-key but normally charismatic Mr. Brauchli looked dour, his face drawn. The questions thrown at him were tense: What’s going to happen to the “A-hed,” those offbeat Page One stories about things like aging pets and farming neighbors? Was the paper to be front-loaded with general stories about San Francisco politics, or did they still want to hear every mouse click coming out of Cupertino? Does Rupert Murdoch care about Pulitzers?
Finally, as a way to ease the tension, Robert Guth, the paper’s Microsoft reporter, tried to change tack.
“Are you having fun?” Mr. Guth asked, according to people present.
Mr. Brauchli appeared distracted—he was looking around the room, scrolling through his BlackBerry, and the question seemed to stop him cold.
“What did you say?” Mr. Brauchli replied.
Mr. Guth repeated the question.
“Well, I’m still here,” Mr. Brauchli said, and the laughter that followed was strained.
The next morning, while visiting the Los Angeles bureau, he was asked whether The Journal was going to be able to retain its identity against the strong will of the newspaper’s new master.
“As long as I’m here it will,” he told the reporters, “but I don’t know much longer I’ll be around for.”
Death of a Salesman
In many ways, his West Coast swing was an appropriate swan song for Mr. Brauchli. He was there to help pitch WSJ. to advertisers. The project had begun its life as Pursuits, and under Mr. Brauchli’s guidance had made it to the prototype level right around the time Mr. Murdoch was establishing his own office in the 11th-floor offices of The Journal (though he was still two months away from completing his deal to buy the paper).
Mr. Brauchli had selected an editor, Journal feature writer Robert Frank, to run their version of The Times’ wildly successful T magazines, and he had given it its name.
But soon after Mr. Murdoch’s takeover was complete, Mr. Frank was kicked off the magazine and it was put directly in the control of Mr. Murdoch’s right-hand man at The Journal, the noted Murdoch loyalist Robert Thomson.
Mr. Thomson installed an old News Corp. ally, Tina Gaudoin, to take over the project. The magazine was ripped apart, and renamed.
And last week, it was Mr. Brauchli burning the shoe leather in California selling advertisers on the magazine that must have seemed to him an absolute rejection of his own editorial vision.
This kind of thing, he became more willing to reveal as the months wore on, was not a shock to his system.
He told the breakfast crowd in the Los Angeles bureau last week about a Rupert Murdoch initiative called “Project Eagle.”
Last year, his new owners told him they wanted to send out a special edition of The Journal in London, distinct from the newspaper’s existing European editions.
Mr. Brauchli would not himself be able to make this edition, but he’d be given plenty of advance notice about its launch. A week later, he said, he was told the launch was happening. He demanded to see a mock-up, which he described as “cartoonish,” and he threw his body over it. Publication was halted for a few months.
Mr. Brauchli had already dropped his facade of being on the winning side; now, he was telling war stories.
Over the past few months, he had made a habit of telling outside reporters that if Mr. Murdoch wanted to see more general news, it was nothing that the editors didn’t also want.
But while he was in San Francisco, that message changed. For the first time, he was saying things like “Rupert Murdoch believes that we should do this.”
No “the editors think …” No patina of concerted effort or opinion at the top.
In answer to that question about the Pulitzers, Mr. Brauchli told the bureau that while Rupert Murdoch does not believe in Pulitzer Prizes, all the Journal’s editors, including himself, do.
By the end of the weekend, Mr. Brauchli had retained the services of Robert Barnett, the power-broker Washington lawyer who has represented Karl Rove, Tony Blair and Ted Kennedy on book deals, to represent him in a severance deal with News Corp. and The Journal.
Whether Mr. Brauchli was forced out, or whether he actually resigned—which virtually no Journal staffers believe—does not matter. The press release sent out by Dow Jones 16 hours after that Time story, and Mr. Brauchli’s own follow-up note to his staff, tell the story clearly enough.
“Marcus has been a terrific leader throughout the transition process and I have great respect for him,” Mr. Murdoch said in a statement. And on the consulting role Mr. Brauchli will continue to hold at the company—one that nobody expects to be in any way substantial—he had this to say: “I am pleased he has accepted this new role in News Corporation and believe his experience will be a great asset, especially in Asia—a region where we see significant growth potential and where he has particular expertise.”
In other words: You’ve been useful so far; now, get out of town.
“I have come to believe the new owners should have a managing editor of their choosing,” was Mr. Brauchli’s explanation.
“[Mr. Murdoch] has done this all over the world—he did it in England, Harry Evans wrote a book about it, and he even tried it at The Village Voice,” said Ken Auletta, the New Yorker writer, who witnessed Mr. Murdoch’s methods while working at New York magazine after Mr. Murdoch took it over in 1977.
“It’s in the nature of Murdoch to be involved.”
When Mr. Murdoch takes over a newspaper, he doesn’t take much time to get things done. It can look slow at first—the preparations for war are often quiet, faraway strategic affairs involving a rather small magic circle, after all. But when it starts, it’s Shock and Awe.
“My view of that situation is, and I’m hard-pressed to think how anyone could think of it differently, is Rupert Murdoch is the editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal,” said Michael Wolff, the Vanity Fair columnist who is currently writing a book on The Journal’s transition to News Corp., and who has been regularly interviewing Mr. Murdoch these days. “In that position, he speaks to Robert Thomson, and then Robert Thomson speaks to Marcus Brauchli.”
They Want Scoops
With his control of the newspaper asserted, all of the roll-outs predicted in that Newsweek article are being seen for what they are: not the preliminary tweaks occasioned by a pair of fresh eyes on the newspaper, but the first stirrings of The Journal in its effort to wrest The Times from its perch as the Newspaper of Record for America’s—possibly the world’s—power elite.
The day that Mr. Brauchli resigned, The Wall Street Journal introduced a new culture report, Currents. It’ll run two days a week in the paper’s A section. The day before, a revamped Marketplace section debuted. What was once the front page for media and marketing news became more like the front of a general-interest broadsheet’s business section. Some stories appeared on the front page without jumping into the section—a trick from The Financial Times’ editorial playbook.
“Marcus said that Murdoch admires a lot of things that are reminiscent of the way Financial Times runs the paper—short, no jump stories,” said a reporter from the Los Angeles bureau.
The old idea of The Journal was of a straight business newspaper wrapped in a magazine. That magazine could carry offbeat A-heds and stories from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists that were the culmination of months of full-time reporting. It was the ultimate in acting luxurious with talent: to put months of hard labor and editing onto a newspaper page that would last a day on the stands before hitting the recycling bin. And to see it online takes a subscription.
In Washington last week, while on a conference call with reporters, the current Page One editor Mike Williams spent much of the time talking to reporters about headline sizes.
“He talked about changed the size of the headline type,” said one Washington reporter. “There wasn’t a conversation about the quality of our stories. It came across like they’re scrambling in New York in trying to figure out what Murdoch wants. They want scoops.”
And of the sort of stories they’ll cover?
“They were talking about the mix of stories ,and they are experimenting with trying to make it an essential read. Are we going to start covering a polygamist camp in Texas? Probably.”
“It’s like a real newspaper now, which we never thought of ourselves, especially on the front page,” said Glynn Mapes, a retired Journal staffer, who was Page One editor for more than 10 years.
But are they more like The New York Times?
Back in January, at a bureau chiefs’ conference, editors in the room noticed Mr. Murdoch and Robert Thomson, the publisher of the paper, circling news stories on a few different newspapers. They were doing it quietly, but some speculation spread: What in the world are they doing—and is this what we’re going to be doing from now on?
“I used to teach my journalism classes that the great thing about The Journal was that it was a paper that assumed you already knew the news, but then gave you some sort of angle on it,” said the journalist, editor and entrepreneur Steven Brill in a phone interview. “Look at the way The Journal covered 9/11: On Wednesday the 12th, The Times was telling you the news of 9/11, which everyone already knew, but The Journal was giving you the financial and business take on those news. Now it’s more straightforward.”
And some early indications are that Mr. Murdoch has already made an impact with the scene-leaders he’ll need to capture if he wants to reverse that conventional wisdom about The Times and The Journal as the yin-yang news sources of America’s power elite.
“It’s being presented less as a paper for businesspeople and more as a paper for people who like to read newspapers,” said Nicholas Lemann, dean at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Mr. Lemann said he still picks up The Times first. “I read The Times backwards, so I flip it over and read every page back to front because I suppose I don’t want to get distracted by the impulse to look only at things deemed important enough to appear on section fronts. But The Journal I read in the opposite direction—I don’t read every page, and mostly look at section fronts for what I want to read.”
But other New Yorkers have already noticed a change in how they consume the dailies.
“I always used to read The Times first and The Journal second; now I find they are side by side at the breakfast table and I might even start with The Journal,” said Simon & Schuster editor in
chief and former Time deputy managing editor Priscilla Painton, who cited two reasons for the shift.
“One is that The Journal has been masterful at decoding things that are currently in the news, like the subprime mortgage crisis and the hedge-fund troubles. The second is that The Journal’s political reporting has become more pointed and aggressive.” Ms. Painton told The Observer. “They seem a half-beat ahead in a way that they weren’t six months ago. Political news that I would normally find on A4 or A6, they now put it on the front page, which makes me think, ‘Gee, I guess I really have to read that.’”
The question is: What will readers get when they arrive there?
“It’s impossible not to notice when a paper as big as The Wall Street Journal publicly sets its sights on you,” said Dick Stevenson, the political editor of The New York Times. “It would be ridiculous to say we don’t notice or care. My view might be different from my colleagues, but I think it’s great for The New York Times to have more competition and for the news business in general to have much more competition, and at the risk of being philosophical, I think good for the country to have more competition.”
“If the assumption is that they are trying to move much closer to or try to match the approach we take to politics or any other general-interest news, I think they have moved a substantial way from their old approach, which seemed to me to pick their targets very carefully and not feel compelled to weigh in every day,” he said.
The presence of The Wall Street Journal is today hardly discernible in the mix of broadsheet newspapers who flood the campaign buses and crowd the hustings of the campaign trail in 2008.
As Mr. Murdoch knows from another theater of war—the battle between his New York Post and its crosstown rival, the Daily News—the real modern war is a street fight. Get up to the murder victim’s apartment first. Get the interview with David Axelrod while he’s being accosted by a man dressed as a giant corn cob in Des Moines.
Since Mr. Murdoch purchased the paper, some Journal staffers have been surprised that Mr. Murdoch hasn’t been more aggressive in changing the structure of the organization—who goes where, who does what, the actual assignments.
They grabbed Sue Schmidt, a star investigative reporter for The Washington Post. But efforts to recruit investigative reporter Don Van Natta from The New York Times failed; according to several sources, The Journal has also struck out with Times reporters David Leonhardt, David Kirkpatrick, Obama-campaign reporter Jeff Zeleny and culture reporter Dan Wakin.
It all seems to be part of a strategy where you make the paper first, and organize the talent to fill the spaces. Like Napoleon drawing up his battle plan for Jena, it’s all sketches until the bodies start falling. Was Mr. Brauchli’s the first?
Tabloid War 2.0?
The same day Mr. Brauchli’s exit was reported on Time’s Web site, there was another report—this time in The Wall Street Journal, about another bit of business concerning the newspaper’s owner.
Merissa Marr reported that News Corp would pay “about $580 million” to Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. to buy Newsday, the Long Island tabloid-format newspaper. Citing unnamed “individuals familiar with the situation,” she reported that the paper would still be partially owned (“less than 5 percent”) by the newly private Tribune Co.
By combining Newsday’s operations with News Corp’s New York Post, Mr. Murdoch’s money-losing tabloid would benefit: As it is, the Post, which cut its print size by an inch and a half starting this week, has widely been reported as a $50 million-a-year money loser. Inevitably, concerns have been raised by some who feel owning three daily newspapers should raise a whiff among antitrust regulators.
Everyone is relating the possible purchase of Newsday (for whom Mr. Murdoch has competition in 27-year-old real estate and media entrepreneur Jared Kushner, owner and publisher of The Observer) to that older Murdochian war, with the Daily News.
In a post on Newsday’s own Business Beat blog, Thomas Maier quoted newspaper analyst John Morton as stating, “This deal gives the Post a significant advantage over the Daily News.” Without a hint of triumphalism for his possible soon-to-be employer’s good fortune, Mr. Maier further quoted Mr. Morton as saying, “It’s not a good day for the Daily News.”
The same day, up at the new Eighth Avenue headquarters of The New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was making his annual presentation to New York Times Company.
Just a bit over a minute into his presentation, Mr. Sulzberger Jr. began speaking about the company’s online products.
“These are impressive figures,” intoned Mr. Sulzberger, referring to the company’s Web income and traffic, “and they individually and collectively underscore the fact that the New York Times Company is in the midst of a successful and ongoing transformation.”
But the Web site accounts for just about 10 percent of the company’s income; the company posted a $335,000 loss in the first quarter. That was not an impressive figure. At that meeting, four new directors were elected to the board; one was Dawn Lepore, the CEO of drugstore.com.
The Times strategy in the overall newspaper decline has been to focus much of its new development on the Web; and similarly, conversations with Times reporters and editors about how they’ll compete with Mr. Murdoch’s new, general-interest Journal have recourse continually to The Times’ unchallenged reach on the Web in the region.
“Competing in the journalistic ferment of the Web has driven us to build a news website that draws phenomenal traffic, has great revenue growth, and consistently wins accolades from the people who hand out Web accolades,” wrote New York Times executive editor Bill Keller in an e-mail to The Observer earlier this week.
The Times is nearly ready to unfurl an expanded business report on its Web site. It’ll cover business and technology, and it’s hiring both outside and inside the paper to do it. The model, said Mr. Ingrassia, the former Journal guy who tried to chase down Mr. Brauchli at the Ritz-Carlton, is like DealBook, the site edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin that is a combination of aggregation and original reporting. And, unlike most of WSJ.com, it’s free without a subscription.
“We are looking for opportunities where we think areas of coverage we can beef up,” said Mr. Ingrassia on April 21, hours before Mr. Brauchli’s last supper. “Bring it on, bring on the competition!” he said.
“Is Murdoch’s strategy to become some version of the NYT?” asked Mr. Keller in his email. “I don’t really know. He’s sure welcome to try. But if I were him I’d be checking to see what WSJ readers think of that. His readers will determine whether he has made the Journal more or less valuable. And they will judge success based on what he delivers rather than PR spin.
“While we are muscling up in some areas of business coverage where we have had competitive success, especially on the Web, our strategy was never, and won’t be, to become the WSJ,” he added.s=”text”>But: “I try not to underestimate any adversary, especially one who doesn’t mind if his properties lose money hand over fist.”
Mr. Sulzberger, by way of trumpeting the newspaper’s growth, said in an offhand comment that “NYTimes.com also ranked No. 1 in coverage of the greater N.Y. market, reaching 28 percent of adults. Our closest competitor, Newsday, reaches 16 percent.”
At press time, there were no further reports of Mr. Murdoch’s progress in the purchase of Newsday.
Additional reporting by Irina Aleksander, Matt Haber and Choire Sicha.