Battle of the Barons!

robert thomson burke  article Battle of the Barons!Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. met last week for the first time. They were at the Manhattan apartment of Sir Martin Sorrell, head of the big WPP advertising firm, and they were there for a dinner on the night of April 6.

Mr. Sulzberger approached Mr. Thomson and introduced himself. The two spoke for a few minutes. They laughed a couple of times, chatted and “then sat down, as all the guests were seated for a small dinner to honor courageous journalists from two continents,” Mr. Thomson told The Observer.

And that’s all about that night that they seem to agree on. 

An old-fashioned, honest-to-God press war is unfolding in our town, revitalizing the local media scene after months of torpor. In a few weeks, on April 26, The Journal will begin its clearest attack on The Times ever, right in its own backyard.

The conversation between Mr. Thomson and Mr. Sulzberger was bound to be fraught. Only weeks earlier, Mr. Thomson sniped to New York magazine that The Times was vulnerable in part because Mr. Sulzberger was in charge. Then, on March 27, the front cover of the Weekend Journal section included a cropped image of the lower part of Arthur Sulzberger’s face, in a graphic that accompanied a story on how women from healthier populations prefer feminine-looking men. The implication seemed clear enough. Mr. Sulzberger had a girly face! A gag, sure, but nonetheless an unusual move by a Journal editor to bring a corporate fight into the paper’s news pages.

Mr. Thomson said the two men laughed about it at the Sorrell dinner. “We had a good giggle about it,” he said. “It wasn’t about masculinity. If you looked at that mosaic of masculinity, Arthur’s jaw was on the masculine end.”

He said Mr. Sulzberger Jr. understood that he was being portrayed as masculine and “there was immediate empathy when we were chuckling.” He referred to everyone’s interpretation that suggested otherwise as an “eccentric exegesis.”

The thing is, according to Mr. Sulzberger’s spokesman Bob Christie—who bolted The Journal for The Times only a few weeks ago—that is not how it happened. At all.

Mr. Christie’s account? While it is true that Mr. Sulzberger greeted Mr. Thomson and the two men exchanged pleasantries, Mr. Thomson left the conversation for a few minutes, before returning. Upon his return, he said that the image that looked like Mr. Sulzberger’s face in that graphic on the Weekend Journal front wasn’t his at all. Mr. Thomson, according to Mr. Christie, told the Times publisher he wasn’t even aware of the image until he read blog posts about it. When Mr. Sulzberger asked Mr. Thomson to run a clarification, the Journal editor declined and said he didn’t want to escalate the issue.

“We have moved on,” said Mr. Christie, the Times spokesman. “And we are focused on the high-quality journalism that we produce every day and that’s why we won three Pulitzers on Monday. The readers and employees of The Wall Street Journal deserve much better than this type of juvenile behavior from its editor in chief.”

Fight!

And it’s likely to get more intense as The Journal approaches the launch of its New York section. In his first extensive interview on the subject, Mr. Thompson sought to dig further under Mr. Sulzberger’s skin. “My advice to New York Times readers is cancel your subscription, read it on the Web for free and buy The Journal,” Mr. Thomson said. “You’ll be impressed by how the coverage broadened out, even if you aren’t a businessperson. There’s a great opportunity for New Yorkers to sample The Times for free, and for less money than a Times subscription, you’ll get The Journal for six days.”

Here is the plan. Mr. Thomson and Mr. Murdoch will lure you into the New York section because you like New York news. And then you will love the new paper and start buying it.

Mr. Thomson, a rail-thin, hunched-over, 49-year-old Australian, was dressed in a charcoal suit with a skinny black tie and stuffed in a booth at Cafeteria on Seventh Avenue on a Friday morning. An empty espresso cup, a bowl of fruit and a half-filled cup of black coffee sat in front of him. For an editor starting a New York section, his choice of restaurant was remarkably free of self-consciousness—Cafeteria’s heyday dates back to sometime about a decade ago. (It is, however, located close to Mr. Thomson’s Chelsea home.)

He explains the rationale behind the new section. Maybe you haven’t noticed, he says, but The Journal, now 28 months into Rupert Murdoch’s ownership and nearly two years into Mr. Thomson’s editorship, has changed over the past couple of years.

He believes there are New Yorkers who aren’t aware of its “evolution” and that’s why they’re still there, on the subway, reading The Times. But now Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Thomson are going to provide those New Yorkers a daily section dedicated to local news, and an entirely new option for a broadsheet in the city.