Rupert Ready: You Bet He's Got a Plan

Look for All His Best Tactics to Grow Circ as a Way to Boost Advertising and Undermine Rivals

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At the risk of sounding overly excitable ... all hell is about to break loose. Rupert Murdoch is poised to take control of The Wall Street Journal, the country's second-largest newspaper by circulation, the top authority on business and finance news and the most powerful brand in the space. And he's going to employ all his best tactics to get more cash out, to increase its reach and to undermine its rivals.
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Photo illustration by John Kuczala

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Fortunately for those who like to be forewarned, his recent comments and his history with other papers, including The Times of London, provide a pretty good picture of just how he'll try it. It's also widely expected he'll bring Robert Thompson, editor of The Times, over to the Journal in some capacity, so look for continuity in a strategy that includes aggressively growing circulation as a way to boost advertising.

Advertising ploys
The Journal commands a premium not just because of its desirable audience. Its reputation for independence and integrity also lend a little extra persuasive power to its advertisers. Given all the hand-wringing over Mr. Murdoch's impact on that independent aura, then, it's a good thing that he'll probably cut ad rates significantly -- at least for a time -- in a bid to steal advertisers from The New York Times, USA Today and even try to cadge some away from business magazines such as Forbes, Fortune and BusinessWeek.

Or he may not cut rates outright; if he succeeds in expanding the Journal's circulation, holding ad rates steady -- a tactic News Corp.'s New York Post has tried -- becomes a de facto rate cut.

Keep an eye out for new sponsorship opportunities, such as the chance to underwrite some free distribution. Microsoft bought The Times for a day in August 1995, giving out 1.5 million free copies, double the paper's normal circulation. Each copy included 12 Microsoft ads plus a 28-page promotion for Windows 95. But the real Murdochian twist was the promotion for the promotion. The Times announced the Microsoft giveaway in a front-page article one day earlier.

The Journal has already begun to sell page-one advertising, but watch for even more aggressive exploration of unusual ad units and innovative placement. Sponsoring news sections may not be out of the question.

Mr. Murdoch will also try to draw any synergy possible from News Corp., presenting advertisers with innovative programs across platforms such as the Journal, Fox Broadcasting and anywhere else a multipronged campaign makes sense.

Boost circulation
Let's see how long the Journal's cover price remains at $1.50, considering The New York Times charges $1.25 and USA Today costs just 75 cents.

Like most of the potential changes, this might not come for some time. Mr. Murdoch owned The Times of London for 12 years before kicking off a vicious price war in the fall of 1993. He took The Times to 30 pence (about 61 cents) from 45 pence -- then when The Daily Telegraph reduced its own price in response, The Times went to 20 pence.

In the U.S., the New York Post has wielded pricing as a major weapon in its epic battle against The New York Daily News. Pride seems to play absolutely no role; the Post's attempt this spring to match the News at 50 cents, instead of its usual 25 cents cover price, lasted less than two weeks.

But there are other incentives as well. It's hard to imagine the Journal following the Post into Scratch 'n' Win territory -- too down-market -- but The Times introduced a lottery game tied to stock prices in the paper in 1984.

Marketing and sales
The Journal today spends very little to promote itself to advertisers, hoping instead that its consumer campaigns, such as the "Have a Brilliant Weekend" work introducing the Saturday edition, perform double duty. That is going to change if The Times is any guide. The Times went after advertisers in 2004, for example, with a trade campaign boasting about a 2.28% increase in circulation and the national release of its tabloid edition.

Watch for new advertising as well, especially as Mr. Murdoch remakes the paper's image and editorial. It will retain its business focus, but as it pushes into more general news, consumers will need to be told of the change. Agencies, prepare your pitches.

And then there's the Journal's sales staff, some of whom are little more than order takers, so accustomed have they become to the paper's importance to certain advertisers. Mr. Murdoch wants to expand that pool of advertisers, so one way or another he's going to infuse the ad-sales team with energy. Whether it's by feeding them steroids -- maybe bringing over some of the Post's team -- or feeding them to the lions remains to be seen.

Tearing down the digital wall
Mr. Murdoch has already wondered aloud about opening the paid-access Wall Street Journal Online to everyone for free. He's definitely going to invest more in digital, so it could make sense to expand the web audience.

"The Wall Street Journal, because of its position, can charge because they're the most differentiated newspaper in the U.S.," said Rafat Ali, publisher-editor of PaidContent.org. "But with ambitions of global domination and trying to work on economies of scale you can see why Murdoch would want to come in and open it up. News Corp. could then leverage the expanded audience."

The Saturday Journal, essential in competing for readers and lifestyle advertisers, has fallen behind its goals this year and been called underwhelming by some.

"They missed a larger opportunity with the Saturday edition to create a product that doesn't look and feel like the weekday product because it's not reaching people in their offices or commutes," media consultant Peter Kreisky has said.

Mr. Murdoch himself told The New York Times that he would consider building a glossy Saturday magazine under The Journal's Pursuits brand. That's basically what The Times of London did in 1998.

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Contributing: Kimberly D. Williams
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