Stand-Alone News Brands Are Doomed

Now That News Corp. Has the Journal, the Once Center of Dow Jones Is Now a Cog in an Entertainment Empire

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Near the top of his blog, journalism critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen keeps a mission statement that's as useful as any for guiding today's pack of weary newshounds. "We need," he writes, "to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media." It's a lofty goal and definitely worth pursuing if you're a believer in a role of the reporter in maintaining democracy and checking the power of business. It's also doomed to failure, as evidenced by Rupert Murdoch's purchase of Dow Jones last week.
Photo illustration by John Kuczala

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Mr. Murdoch's victory is a black day for premium news brands, the sort of outlets that could stand on their own. Not because the Aussie will befoul the Journal's pages with celebrity gossip, scantily clad models or crass headlines, but as an urgent reminder that high-brow notions of news are rapidly losing whatever power they still have in a culture that prizes brevity, speed and, above all, entertainment.

A News Corp.-owned Wall Street Journal begs a question: In a world where the attention of consumers and hence advertisers is divided among video games, "American Idol" and LOLCats, can a business built solely to deliver news -- especially long, serious articles about complicated topics -- remain independent and successful?

Destination paper
Time was, there would be no better destination for an advertiser -- or, for that matter, an ambitious reporter -- than The Wall Street Journal, a fact that made it the natural center of the Dow Jones world.

But take some bad business decisions, plus the decline of newspaper advertising, plus the proliferation of cheaper, more exciting places to put ads, plus the erosion of trust in the media and, voilá, you've got a remodeling of the media world that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The nation's leading purveyor of business information, still an agenda-setter for the planet's biggest economy, becomes a cog in a vertically integrated, multinational creator and distributor of entertainment, a machine engineered to pump out synergies such as "The Simpsons" movie or, more scarily, that aborted O.J. Simpson extravaganza, rather than Pulitzers.

Until now, Mr. Murdoch's newspaper holdings have been isolated within the News Corp. empire, contributing less and less to a whole dominated by possessions such as the 20th Century Fox film studio, the Fox broadcast and cable networks, and, increasingly, MySpace. But the Journal, to be sure, will not be kept in such isolation. Sure, Mr. Murdoch will pump capital into the paper, allowing it to build out its international operation, but some are predicting that one effect of that bulking up could be to further his business goals, especially in China. And Journal reportage, now a means to the purist end of watchdogging the business community, will be called upon also to add more grist to that massive multimedia content mill, in the form of the Fox Business Network -- which is already being positioned as more pro-business than CNBC, absurd as that sounds.

The assembly line
What a repurposed corporate ontology means for Dow Jones, the Journal brand, the people who work there and the news business at large remains to be seen. The expense of producing hard news combined with the dilution of mass audiences and now a desiccated ad landscape for serious journalism has already forced a gutting of venerable operations such as CBS News and its network rivals, putting them on the infotainment assembly line. Was it only ever a matter of time before some even more prestigious outlets were forced to man a post?

Former Dow Jones CEO Peter Kann was anti-sale and worried about how a relatively small company would fit into Mr. Murdoch's behemoth, telling The New Yorker's Ken Auletta, "As a public trust, [the Journal] sits in the center of Dow Jones. And I'm not sure where it would sit in Gannett or Google or News Corp."

Here's another quote, from Mr. Kann's successor, Richard Zannino, in a memo following the sale announcement: "We can't have great journalism without a great business to support it. And without the journalism, there is no business. This combination with News Corp. acknowledges as much."

So yawning is the intellectual gulf that separates these statements, you can almost feel history rumble through it. Perhaps giving a glimpse of his roots as a reporter and editor, Mr. Kann holds out a role for the Journal that transcends any business struggles, even using the phrase "public trust," which sounds almost quaint given popular attitudes toward the news media. Mr. Zannino, on the other hand, is all about business, and that is the approach that carried the day.
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