Just how badly will Rupert Murdoch screw up the Wall Street Journal?
Ever since Murdoch’s just-accepted $5 billion offer for Dow Jones, the Journal’s parent company, became public this past May, this has been journalism’s great burning question. Some predict, with a sort of anxious optimism, that the Journal’s prestige will make Murdoch tread with relative delicacy. Others size up Murdoch’s record with News Corporation, his sprawling media conglomerate, and offer a grimmer vision: the Journal will soon be a dumbed-down shell of its former self, a vanity vehicle that’s used to advance Murdoch’s own political and economic agenda and has all the journalistic integrity of Fox News, another News Corp. property.
As the tea-leaf readers parse Murdoch’s record in newspapers, The Times of London and the New York Post have been getting most of the attention. This makes sense. Like the Journal, the Times has a long and prestigious history; like the Journal, the Post is based in New York and is familiar to American readers. But as the Project for Excellence in Journalism recently noted, Murdoch’s history with American newspapers isn’t restricted to New York. Among other things, the Bossy Aussie once owned the Boston Herald — and while that tabloid and the Journal are radically different beasts, Murdoch’s Boston tenure may offer one or two clues about the Journal’s future.
Murdoch’s purchase of the Herald — then called the Herald American — was an act of journalistic resurrection. On December 3, 1982, Murdoch reached an impasse with the union that represented the Herald American’s mailers; the parking lot was barricaded, and workers cleared off their desks. (The dying paper’s other employee unions had already made major concessions, including job cuts, to facilitate the sale from Hearst Corp. to Murdoch.) “I got the news about noontime that the negotiations had broken off and the paper had folded,” says David Rosenbaum, then the Herald’s assistant managing editor for features and now the editor of CIO magazine, a publication for IT executives. “We were officially out of work.”
Rosenbaum promptly went to the Boston BusinessJournal to write a freelance story on the Herald’s demise. He filed the piece and went home. Later that afternoon, Rosenbaum got a call: Murdoch and the mailers had a deal, the paper was alive, and he had work to do. He returned to the office. Just before 5 pm, Murdoch arrived in the newsroom, announced the sale, and shook hands with his new employees.
Soon thereafter, Rosenbaum continues, “the Murdoch editors arrived: Les Hinton [the new managing editor, an Australian who’d edited the Star, Murdoch’s supermarket tabloid] and Joe Robinowitz [the new editor, a Texan who’d been assistant managing editor at the Post]. And they said, ‘We’re going to show you how to put out a tabloid.’ ”
Step One was changing the layout from four columns to seven — better for packing the pages with short, easy-to-read stories. Step Two was changing the paper’s ethos, from the subdued tabloid style cultivated under Hearst to something more authentically Murdochian — edgy, sensationalistic, and shameless. “I remember Hinton saying to me, ‘Every page should look like it’s having a nervous breakdown,’ ” Rosenbaum recalls. “And that’s what we did.” (Case in point: a single page that had a political story, a piece on a fatal school-bus crash — and an item on Wingo!, the numbers game imported from Murdoch’s Post.)
Step Three was staffing Murdoch’s new baby — a process which, in the end, made quite an impact on Boston’s journalistic landscape. Frank Phillips and Brian Mooney came from the Lowell Sun; Joe Sciacca came from the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune; Kevin Cullen came from the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram. The list goes on: Shelley Murphy, Andrea Estes, Andrew Costello, Andrew Gully.
If you live in Boston and pay any attention to the local media scene, these names should be familiar. Phillips, Mooney, Estes, Murphy, and Cullen were eventually hired away by the Globe and have been some of that paper’s best-known reporters for years (Cullen recently became a metro columnist). Along with Kevin Convey, who’d joined the paper under Hearst, Gully and Costello comprised the trio known as the “Micks with Dicks” that ran the Herald for most of the ’90s. Sciacca currently runs the Herald’s local-news operation.
Talk to any member of this crew today, and they’re likely to wax rhapsodic about the heady atmosphere of the early Murdoch era. “It was terrific,” Phillips recalls. “We were a bunch of hotshot young reporters, and we thought we were running circles around the Globe. I was the one person the Herald had at the State House; the Globe had five people. They were perfectly nice and very smart — they’d gone to Ivy League schools — but they couldn’t understand Massachusetts politics because they’d never covered it.”