Murdoch To Times: I Will Bury You! Keller Bristles

At 3 p.m. on Oct. 12, three days before the launch this week of the Fox Business Network, Roger Ailes

At 3 p.m. on Oct. 12, three days before the launch this week of the Fox Business Network, Roger Ailes gave a rally-the-troops speech to FBN rank-and-file, according to a staffer present. The Fox News president warned that the upstart network would encounter a doubting mainstream press, just as Fox News had over a decade ago. “Don’t worry about what people may say about us,” Mr. Ailes told his staff. Then he dug into his mid-1990’s newspaper archives, and gleefully quoted from a notably skeptical—and, as it turned out, unprescient—assessment of Fox News’ prospects. The article was from The New York Times.

Even as Rupert Murdoch uses FBN, his latest News Corp. project, to take on the existing business television establishment in the form of CNBC and Bloomberg, he and his top lieutenants appear to have one eye on the coming struggle with a more iconic foe. To Mr. Murdoch, The New York Times represents exhibit A in his case that the mainstream—that is, the non-Murdoch-owned—media ignores a certain viewpoint: namely, that particular blend of conservative populism, tabloid exuberance and capitalist cheerleading with which he has rewritten the rules of the news business. Now Mr. Murdoch, 76, is gearing up to use The Wall Street Journal to further that viewpoint—and in the process, knock The Times off its pedestal.

“My worry about The New York Times is that it’s got the only position as a national elitist general interest paper,” Mr. Murdoch told Time magazine in June. “So the network news picks its cues from The Times. And local papers do, too. It has a huge influence. And we’d love to challenge that.”

It’s becoming clear, then, that Mr. Murdoch plans to give The Times its first taste of real competition since the New York Herald Tribune folded in 1966, by going after The Times’ status as the national paper of record. But what’s not clear is whether The Times accepts that the gantlet has been thrown down.

Since Mr. Murdoch and his band of pirates began rattling their sabers this summer, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger has maintained a dignified silence—and he declined The Observer’s request to comment on the coming showdown. But Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor, questioned the viability of Mr. Murdoch’s plan to build an alternative national paper. “Good journalism for an intelligent general audience is hard,” he told The Observer in an e-mail. “And we’re really good at it. Taking on The Times is not as easy as waving a credit card and proclaiming yourself ‘fair and balanced.’”

Ever since his bid to buy Dow Jones was announced on May 1, media hand-wringers have spilled plenty of ink on the subject of what Mr. Murdoch would do with The Journal. And in recent months, a picture—albeit still fuzzy and indistinct—has begun to emerge.

In early August, just days after bickering Bancrofts accepted News Corp.’s $5 billion offer, Marcus Brauchli, The Journal’s managing editor since May, held a conference call with reporters and editors from the newspaper’s various bureaus. Journal staffers from several cities—including Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco—were involved, according to a source on the line. On that call, Mr. Brauchli for the first time relayed to the bureau staffers Mr. Murdoch’s intention to chip away at The Times’ newspaper-of-record mantle, by offering more general news. In the long-term, Mr. Brauchli told his team, The Journal hoped to reorganize its resources so that, for instance, when a bridge collapses in Minnesota, it could quickly be on the scene, just as The Times is.

But making that happen will be far from easy. “My feeling always was that the paper is best off defining itself as a business newspaper, albeit with often much broader coverage than strictly business,” said Peter Kann, who spent four decades at Dow Jones, most recently as chairman and CEO. “Where you cross the line to become a more general interest paper, I don’t know.”

In interviews over the summer, Mr. Murdoch also suggested that several other less far-reaching changes could be in the works: He noted, among other things, that more resources might be funneled into covering politics, both in Washington and internationally, and that he’d give serious thought to eliminating the online pay wall and replacing it with a model based on ad revenue.

There’s already evidence that some of these moves could soon become reality. As The Observer reported last month, Mr. Brauchli recently announced that John Bussey, known as an experienced, take-charge editor, would be the new Washington bureau chief. And, sources say, he’ll likely assign the well-regarded Gary Putka, who had been a top candidate for the bureau chief job, to oversee some coverage of homeland security and national affairs from Boston. “There’s an assumption that there will be more resources going into Washington,” Gerald Seib, who was recently named the paper’s executive Washington editor, told The Observer.

Perhaps more portentously, on Oct. 16—four weeks after The Times ended TimesSelect, which had put its columnists off-limits to readers who weren’t paid subscribers—The Journal experimented by taking down its own more comprehensive online pay wall for a day, increasing speculation that it could come down permanently in the not-too-distant future.

Industry analysts say such a move would be one of the most threatening actions The Journal could take with regard to its new rival. “If Murdoch takes down the pay wall, the competition for the business reader will increase,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst with Outsell Inc. “The Times has a strong franchise in business news, and then The Wall Street Journal can go directly at that and say, ‘We are the No. 1 business source and those of you using The New York Times business can go to us for free now.’” Mr. Doctor continued: “Business customers are among the most lucrative online, and if Murdoch takes them away, it’s the greatest hurt he could inflict.”

Murdoch To Times: I Will Bury You! Keller Bristles