Thursday, August 30, 2007

Murdoch's Wall Street Journal: French editors react

Murdoch's Wall Street Journal: French editors react

In the wake of Rupert Murdoch's $5.6 billion takeover of Dow Jones, the reactions among the media have been diverse: was it a fatal blow onto a trusted news organization's credibility, a profitable deal in a struggling industry, a conventional business move that won't affect the Wall Street Journal's (WSJ) editorial integrity? Most probably, a little of all of the above. What will become of the Journal's praised journalism? In addition to international media's views, the Editors Weblog collected the insight of some top French editors.

In the Dow Jones' headquarters, "the Australia-born media mogul's $5.6bn takeover of the Wall Street Journal's publisher prompted a mixture of resignation and angst," reports the UK Media Guardian.

"Contrary to all the nonsense the Bancrofts and the New York Times put out, Rupert Murdoch is not about to destroy the Dow Jones editorial reputation for which he has paid so much - indeed look for Murdoch's global plan to make the Wall Street Journal THE US newspaper of record," says Philip Stone, for Follow the Media.

"News Corp.'s proposed acquisition of Dow Jones begins a process that will affect us all, but won't change what we do in the newsroom," echoes Marcus Brauchli, WSJ's managing editor.

Meanwhile "the Independent Association of Publishers' Employees, Local 1096, which represents over 2000 Dow Jones professionals, quickly criticized the reported victory for Rupert Murdoch," reports Editor & Publisher.

The New York Times, after having led a virulent campaign against the deal, chose to cover the story from a more factual stance, summarizing the main stages in the deal process.

France: the editorial reaction

France has a strong and persistent tradition of upholding editorial independence and trying to keep its newspapers' editorial lines clear from their financial owners. So one might expect editors to firmly oppose this type of deal with Murdoch and be worried about WSJ's future. Not so fast.

What would be your reaction if your newspaper were being acquired by News Corp.?

"We would try to resist," says Daniel Psenny, deputy chief of Media at Le Monde. "We know who Murdoch is, what he does."

"This (News Corp.) is not any big company," says Henri Gibier, editor in chief of Les Echos, a leading French business daily. "I don't think we could legitimately oppose a takeover, because it would be a press group acquiring a newspaper."
Gibier rejected the analogy with Les Echos' current controversial situation, which is allegedly a conflict of interest (a prominent businessman, Bernard Arnault head of LVMH, acquiring a leading business newspaper).

Didier Pillet, Director of Information at Ouest-France: "Ouest-France has protected itself against this type of acquisition. Our project is to provide an information service; it is not a project for the accumulation of profit. In 1990, to guarantee the perenniality of this project, shareholders sold their shares to the 'Association pour le soutien des principes de la démocratie humaniste,' and Ouest-France became a not-for-profit organization."

Was this a tradeoff between editorial integrity / independence and additional financial resources - to be potentially invested in editorial quality? How do you find an acceptable compromise in this situation?

Pillet: "I don't believe in this type of compromise. It is not up to businessmen to judge (the editorial quality), it's up to the readers. Editorial quality is not exchangeable."

Psenny: "Editorial quality is also editorial independence. The press is not an industry. It's not like other products." Any time there is a majority shareholder, this financial power can impose its influence on editorial integrity.

Gibier: "You can't exchange independence against additional financial resources. The credibility of an information newspaper is based first and foremost on its editorial independence. But it's true that quality is not independent of the resources a newspaper has for its investigations and coverage."

All three editors defend the precedence of editorial integrity over additional financial resources. However, they don't offer a solution to newspapers faced with this - albeit unacceptable - ordeal. How can a newspaper protect itself when forced into this situation? Some possibilities: either by obtaining guarantees with the new owner, or by naming editorial watchdogs, or by simply preventing these situations, as is the case for Ouest France.

The question remains: Will the few guarantees of editorial independence obtained by the Journal be effective in practice?

How will this deal affect the Wall Street Journal's journalism?

"The Wall Street Journal is a referential Bible in journalism," says Psenny, but Murdoch seems to want to turn it in more of a general news publication, to compete with The New York Times. "It's up to the journalists to resist that and be wary of changes in their editorial policy."

"Most of the newspapers acquired by Murdoch have been levelled from below," agrees Gibier, citing the Sun, and even prestigious newspapers like the London Times. "There is a will to produce populous press."

The WSJ is another matter though. Considering Murdoch is a pragmatic press manager, Gibier thinks it would be dangerous to turn the Journal into a general news publication or decrease its quality. Although the Journal is widely circulated, it remains targeted toward the elites.

Pillet doesn't believe either that the Wall Street Journal's journalism will be affected negatively. Since WSJ's asset is financial, it needs to be further developed, thus it must uphold its credibility for readers to trust it. Along the lines of Philip Stone's argument, it would be against Murdoch's interest that WSJ's journalism diminish in quality.

This probably is the essential point: whether or not Murdoch noses into the Journal's editorial policy - surreptitiously or ostensibly - his main interest is business. This is why he bought Dow-Jones with a 60% premium in the first place, and this is why he plans on injecting many more millions into the WSJ.

Murdoch is certainly aware that a Fox News-oriented WSJ would enjoy little credibility and success in a crusade against the Financial Times and an aggressive expansion plan in Asia.

In the end, most analysts agree that, from a strictly financial point of view, the deal will be profitable for Dow Jones. After all, Murdoch's goal here is about the bottom line, not editorial integrity

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