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THE NATION

New boss unpopular in Journal newsroom

Despite protections built into the deal, fears abound that Murdoch will compromise the paper's reputation.

August 01, 2007|Walter Hamilton | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It's normally not good news when a company is the subject of repeated stories on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

That was driven home to the newspaper's own reporters in deeply personal fashion Tuesday by the news that Rupert Murdoch appeared to have succeeded in his months-long quest to take over Dow Jones & Co., the Journal's parent company.

Reporters reacted bitterly to the prospect of Murdoch's gaining control of the Journal, which has long been regarded as a beacon of financial journalism.

They voiced concern that Murdoch would diminish the paper's quality, imbue it with some of the glitzy style of his crosstown New York Post and slant the Journal's news coverage to advance his business interests.

"People are aghast that this could have happened," said one reporter, who like others spoke on condition on anonymity. "It's a sickening realization to know that this really great iconic newspaper is [not only] no longer going to be independent, but is also going to be controlled by a man whose values are inimical to ours."

To address such concerns, Dow Jones and Murdoch's News Corp. -- which also owns 20th Century Fox, the Fox News Channel and tabloid newspapers in Britain and Australia -- agreed to the creation of a special committee to help protect the newsroom from attempts to steer coverage that relates to Murdoch's interests.

The panel could veto the firing or hiring of top Journal editorial executives, but some Journal writers have said the committee wouldn't be strong enough to ensure editorial independence.

The newsroom was particularly incensed by the detail, disclosed on the Journal's website Tuesday, that Dow Jones had agreed to pay the Bancroft family's advisory and legal fees related to the merger, which are estimated to be at least $30 million.

The journalists viewed the payment, which would ultimately be made by Murdoch's News Corp., as an improper incentive for wavering family members to support the deal.

"There's a real feeling that this place covers the worst in corporate behavior and our executives should have known better," one reporter said.

A Dow Jones spokeswoman refused to comment on the issue.

Journal reporters also voiced disappointment that Paul Steiger, the paper's longtime managing editor, did not speak out against the News Corp. bid. Steiger, an industry icon who stepped down in May to become the paper's editor-at-large, could have rallied opposition to the deal, they said.

"There's a fair amount of anger and frustration at him," one reporter said.

Robert Christie, a Dow Jones spokesman, said it would be inappropriate for Steiger, who is overseeing the paper's coverage of the News Corp. bid, to express any feelings about the deal.

"He's in no position to comment publicly," Christie said.

If there was a silver lining, some reporters took solace in the belief that the Journal, which has been struck by a decline in ad revenue that is afflicting the entire newspaper industry, might have undertaken deep cost-cutting and layoffs had Murdoch and his money not shown up.

Nevertheless, after years working their way up to a major newspaper, some Journal reporters are reassessing their careers.

"Everyone is sitting here talking about what their next career will be -- not their next journalism job, their next career," said one reporter.

Judging by comments on the Journal's website, many readers aren't looking forward to Murdoch's ownership.

"If the WSJ becomes anything as gaudy, sensational, or inflammatory as Fox News, I'm never reading it again," one person wrote. "This is bad news for readers. My sympathies go out to the WSJ staff."

walter.hamilton@latimes.com

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