WSJ Sales Team Sold on Murdoch

Execs Say News Corp.'s Other Assets, Marketing Would Boost Paper's Profits

By Published on .

While the wall Street Journal newsroom may see Rupert Murdoch as the wolf at the door, many of their colleagues on the paper's business side are ready to throw open the latch.
Rupert Murdoch.
Illustration: Randy Glass

The arbiters of advertising have offered nothing more dramatic than a wait-and-see posture toward Rupert Murdoch's attempted acquisition of The Wall Street Journal, with some even wondering whether News Corp. might bring some welcome energy or ideas to the august organ.

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It's perhaps not surprising that editorial concerns have dominated the coverage of Mr. Murdoch's pursuit of the paper. Decades of media moguldom have lent him a shadow too long to ignore, and the question of his influence is fascinating fodder among journalists for whom editorial integrity is sacred. But print planners and buyers canvassed over the last month have seemed less concerned about such matters than those who create the content. The arbiters of advertising have offered nothing more dramatic than a wait-and-see posture, with some even wondering whether News Corp. might bring some welcome energy or ideas to the august organ.

In the Journal's sales and marketing departments, they'll be counting on it if the paper is to reverse its recent struggles. After six consecutive quarters of growth, the Journal's print-ad revenue in the U.S. fell 1.8% in the first quarter this year and 6.8% in the second quarter. The paper is about $30 million shy of its internal goals, by one informed estimate. The paper's "Weekend Edition" beat its performance targets in 2005 and 2006 but has fallen behind in 2007.

'A good marriage'
How might News Corp. help? Well, some sales execs are hoping Mr. Murdoch will shake up an ad-sales team that is still accused of being too oriented around order-taking. They also hope he'll provide some much-needed marketing dollars to push the paper to potential advertisers. Others hope the integration of the Journal with News Corp.'s other assets -- such as Fox News and the coming Fox Business Network -- will improve resources and reputation on all sides. "It's a good marriage," said one Journal sales executive.

On the West Coast, a Journal salesman said he thought the takeover would make his job easier because cable TV is easier to sell than newsprint right now. Offering both to advertisers would be more attractive than a sales call for newsprint alone, he said.

Still, the cross-platform selling opportunities are not quite as easy to realize as some might expect. Normally the strategy in such situations is to take the leading advertisers on one property and persuade them to spend more on the other properties. But in this case there's already a lot of overlap. Four advertisers made both the top 10 lists for both the Journal and Fox News in 2006: Ford, GM, Verizon and Sprint Nextel. Those four spent more at the Journal -- $98.3 million -- than at Fox News -- $51.4 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Tighter wallets
It's also unclear how much simple synergy can be spun from Dow Jones' and News Corp.'s parts, however perfect their marriage. The kinds of marketers who want sprawling multiplatform programs aren't the Journal's bread-and-butter customers, who tend to have more limits -- read: smaller budgets -- than others.

"The guys who are endemic to the Journal aren't those multiplatform marketers," said an executive at another business-media company. "Sure, you have some IBMs and the like, but the guys who were really doing it were the auto companies, and they're pulling a lot out of print."

IBM, not incidentally, was once the Journal's best advertiser, but has cut its spending with the paper for a few years in a row (see story here). After leading all Journal advertisers with a $41.5 million outlay in 2004, the company slipped to second place in 2005 with $37.6 million, ninth in 2006 with $16.9 million and out of the top 10 entirely in the first quarter of this year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

The Journal might, above all, need to revamp its own operations before teaming with News Corp. assets. That could mean a bumpy ride for the same Journal sales and marketing people who are rooting for Mr. Murdoch to effect change.

Ossified sales organization
"The Journal's having enough trouble packaging itself," said an executive at a leading business magazine. "Before they start trying to package it with some of Rupert's other properties, they have to fix themselves."

To hear observers as well as current and former employees tell it, The Wall Street Journal selling organization has become ossified, partly as a result of simply taking orders during the boom years -- a practice, it turns out, that's been hard to shake.

L. Gordon Crovtiz, publisher of the Journal, defended the sales team and touted its improvement over the past few years, citing the introduction of front-page ads, a more flexible pricing structure and ad-category expertise. "So we have a level of understanding of what our clients and their agencies are looking for that we did not have a few years ago and that I do not think anybody else in our field group now has," he said.

Michael Rooney, the ESPN veteran who was named to the newly created role of chief revenue officer for the Dow Jones Consumer Media Group on May 10, said his new employer has great talent in place already. "All of this has been incredibly impressive to me in the five or six weeks that I've been here," he said. "We are making some changes, but there are some very good people in our integrated solutions group, in our categories and in our marketing group."
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