Journal Editorial Independence Committee Unanimously Agreed Over ‘Excellent’ Thomson Hire

We just spoke to Tom Bray, the de facto spokesman of the Wall Street Journal’s special committee for independence that has approval rights over new announcements for a managing editor.

“We approved it today,” he said.

He said that Mr. Thomson was approved by the committee unanimously and that it was a rolling vote conducted by e-mail and conference call. Mr. Thomson could have been approved with a majority 3-2 for the five-person committee.

He said that the committee was first informed about Mr. Thomson “over a week ago.”

When asked whether the committee was given any other names for managing editor at any time since Marcus Brauchli stepped down, he seemed to suggest there were. “Some things don’t get to a vote,” he said.

When asked to clarify, he said, “I’m not going to go beyond what I just told you.” He referred us to the committee’s statement, which will appear in the Journal tomorrow.

In the statement, the members of the committee praise Mr. Thomson as an “excellent choice” to replace Mr. Brauchli. They once again repeat the beef they had in the way that Mr. Brauchli left the paper and how they weren’t notified in a “timely fashion.” The statement emphasizes that they were notified in a “timely fashion” here, and Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Thomson made an error in not notifying the committee sooner.

“Mr. Thomson has told the special committee that he now realizes that the way this was handled was a mistake,” it reads.

A newspaper defines itself in part by its choice of editor. It is not an easy job to fill.

Yesterday Dow Jones, Inc., with the approval of the Special Committee to defend the editorial integrity of the Wall Street Journal, announced the appointment of Robert Thomson as its editor-in-chief, as well as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal itself. The Committee was advised of this choice in a timely fashion, has considered Mr. Thomson’s credentials and has voted to approve the appointment.

The editor of a great paper has to have a broad understanding of the way the world works, a relentless curiosity and the ability to make decisions in minutes that others might agonize over for weeks. He must also have the skills to master a complex and rapidly changing communications environment.

Most important, from the Committee’s viewpoint, he must have a demonstrated ability to gain and hold the confidence of the readers, the paper’s owner and the news staff, while showing the independence of mind and the courage to make editorial decisions that might cause discomfort, or even business trouble, to the owner and its senior executives.

Starting as a copyboy for the Herald of Melbourne, Australia, Mr. Thomson had a distinguished and at times harrowing career as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times, then served successfully in various senior editing positions at the FT, and then as editor of the Times of London.

The special committee has held conversations with Mr. Thomson, with former managing editor Marcus Brauchli, and with others at the Journal and elsewhere. We were concerned in particular by Mr. Thomson’s role in the departure of his predecessor, Mr. Brauchli. Under the agreement that News Corp. signed as part of its acquisition of Dow Jones & Co., the Committee’s agreement to conversations that led to Mr. Brauchli’s departure were required but never sought until after the fact.

The Committee has satisfied itself that issues of editorial integrity – our primary concern — didn’t play a role in this case, but the process, which involved Mr. Thomson and Les Hinton, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, was unacceptable. Mr. Thomson has told the special committee that he now realizes that the way this was handled was a mistake. Mr. Hinton issued a statement apologizing to the committee and undertaking that “in the future we will consult with…and seek approval of the Committee before taking any action with respect to an editor that could result in a material change in the editor’s duties, responsibilities or reporting relationships.”

News Corp. has also agreed to amendments to the agreement with the Special Committee that reflect these concerns.

Among other things, the amendments make clear that whatever their titles, the individuals who make the key news and editorial decisions at The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires will continue to fall within the provisions of the agreement. The amendments explicitly require timely notification of potential changes and Committee approval before actions are taken that might lead to removal of those who carry out the functions of the managing editor or the editor of the editorial page of the Journal.

As contemplated in the original agreement, the managing editor of the Newswires will now report to the managing editor of the Journal, but a further amendment to the agreement provides that the top editor at the Newswires can still appeal disputes regarding ethical issues to the Committee.

Balanced against the single recent episode is Mr. Thomson’s history of independence in editorial decision-making at the Times of London and before. We are aware of no evidence to the contrary.

In the appointment of Mr. Thomson the company has behaved appropriately under the agreement. It was not the Committee’s role to participate in the search, to consider other possible candidates or to render judgment on what skills were being sought or what changes in Dow Jones’ editorial product might be contemplated, so long as the skills and changes are consistent with the high ethical standards of Dow Jones. But in Mr. Thomson we believe News Corp. has made an excellent choice.

 

Journal Editorial Independence Committee Unanimously Agreed Over ‘Excellent’ Thomson Hire