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Writers wary of Murdoch stage protest

The Wall Street Journal staffers show up to work late. They fear a loss of editorial independence.

June 29, 2007|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch mused aloud about the advantages of eliminating the print edition of the Wall Street Journal just as he was hammering out a deal with the paper's parent company to protect its journalistic independence if he were to become its new owner.

Spinning a "what if" scenario for Time magazine, Murdoch bet that the Journal would be more profitable if it spent $100 million a year to employ top business writers and got rid of the presses, paper and trucks and put everything online for free.

"How long would it take for the advertising to come? It would be successful," Murdoch told the magazine in next week's issue.

His comments, made public Thursday by Time, came as the media mogul and Dow Jones & Co. were waiting to see whether key parts of his proposed $5-billion takeover bid would be acceptable to the Bancroft family, the majority shareholder of the publishing company.

Scores of Journal reporters made their views on editorial freedom known by failing to appear in their offices until 2 p.m. Thursday.

In a statement from the union that organized the demonstration, the writers said they acted because the Journal's "long tradition of independence, which has been the hallmark of our news coverage for decades, is threatened today."

"The Journal's editorial integrity depends on an owner committed to journalistic independence," the organizers wrote.

Murdoch offered to pay a steep premium for Dow Jones of $60 a share in April, but has been dogged by questions from critics about whether he would use the Journal to further his business agenda, as they accuse him of doing with some of his other assets.

News Corp. owns newspapers including the Times of London, satellite television operations, movie and television studios, the Fox TV network and channels including Fox News.

An independence plan agreed to by News Corp. and Dow Jones negotiators this week would establish a committee with authority to veto the hiring and firing of top editors. The five initial members of the panel would be jointly approved by News Corp., Dow Jones and the Bancrofts before the sale was completed, people informed of the terms said.

The pact would give the committee power to stop News Corp. from making changes to the authority of top news and editorial executives. That includes decision about hiring, what to publish and how to spend their budgets, the insiders said. They asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Neither News Corp., Dow Jones nor the Bancrofts would comment. But industry executives were skeptical.

"It sounds good, but so did the agreement when Murdoch took over the London Times, and in the end, the agreement appeared to be more window dressing than protection for the newsroom," said Gene Roberts, former managing editor of the New York Times and executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He's buying the paper, and I think one way or the other, he's going to gain control."

Jim Browning, a Journal staff reporter and organizer of Thursday's surprise protest, said Murdoch could threaten to, say, eliminate the print edition in an effort to squeeze other concessions from editors, thereby circumventing the committee.

Murdoch has said he would be foolish to harm the Journal by micromanaging it.

Browning and other reporters affiliated with the Independent Assn. of Publishers' Employees estimated that 150 or more U.S. staff writers, the vast majority of the domestic force, stayed away from their offices Thursday morning. A Dow Jones spokesman said the union was inflating the number, but neither he nor Journal Managing Editor Marcus Brauchli offered any estimate.

"It was evident that many people were not in," Brauchli said.

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joseph.menn@latimes.com

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