Murdoch's Object of Desire: 'The Journal'

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We've heard much about Rupert Murdoch's offer of $5 billion dollars for one of the jewels in the crown of American journalism. But, aside from stock analysts, who reads The Wall Street Journal?


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

And now, we take stock of two high-profile media companies, one old media and one decidedly new. First, the Wall Street Journal. There's been intense scrutiny of Rupert Murdoch's bid to buy Dow Jones, the parent company of the Journal. Less has been said, however, about what he'd actually get for his $5 billion. The Journal is considered the daily gospel for financial markets.

NPR's David Folkenflik examines the paper and its readers.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: To understand the influence of the Wall Street Journal, visit Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan sometime. Each day, more than 700,000 people come through here, and each day cleaning crews recycle nearly two tons of newsprint from the Journal alone. Maria Gutierrez(ph) has been selling newspapers to commuters for 17 years, and she says you can almost always tell who's going to want a copy of the Journal.

Ms. MARIA GUTIERREZ (Newspaper vendor): A gentleman, that very gentleman I saw.

FOLKENFLIK: That customer doesn't mind paying a dollar for the Wall Street Journal.

Ms. GUTIERREZ: Well, you know, the other people coming for 25-cent paper or 50-cent paper. Well, the Wall Street Journal customer is a different customer.

FOLKENFLIK: In fact, the average subscriber - that's the average one - makes $235,000 a year. More than 60 percent of subscribers earn the top management ranks of their companies.

Wall Street Journal reporter Alex Frangos says there is an elite readership, but not one that's simply drawn from the world of finance.

Mr. ALEX FRANGOS (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): You know, there are doctor who wants to read about the stock market, or a lawyer who wants to read about medicine because it affects their lives and it gives them insight into their families or their businesses or the way they vote or whatever they do.

FOLKENFLIK: Take J.C. Keister, who didn't have much use for local papers when he lived in Texas about 20 years ago. He came across the Journal and he was hooked.

Dr. J.C. KEISTER (Research Specialist, 3M): And it kept up with the national, international news, but it also had to speak, frankly, again commentary that was more suitable to what we were interested in.

FOLKENFLIK: Keister is a self-described conservative who loves the free market approach of the Journal's opinion pages. But he's no player on Wall Street. He's a scientist. Keister works for 3M near Minneapolis, figuring out new applications for those patches people put on their skin to deliver doses of prescription drugs. Beyond the editorials, Keister pays close attention to the news pages as well.

Dr. KEISTER: Yes, there is a war in Iraq. And yes, there are issues about global warming. I want to pick up on those. And that's the most helpful.

FOLKENFLIK: On the left side of the ideological spectrum is Sanford Lakoff. He's a retired political science professor at the University of California in San Diego. Lakoff picked up the Journal a month ago at a friend's house.

Dr. SANFORD LAKOFF (Research Professor, Harvard University): I found myself reading it and I said to myself, my God, this is a rather good newspaper.

FOLKENFLIK: Lakoff had a letter to the editor published rebuking the Journal for supporting President Bush's missile defense policy. That's one of Lakoff's specialties. But the scholar is now a Journal subscriber.

Dr. LAKOFF: And I haven't been disappointed. The weird thing is that I've had to change my rituals. My morning ritual was to skim the local newspaper, which is about all its worth reading, and then concentrate on the New York Times.

FOLKENFLIK: The Journal is what's called a second read. Most subscribers also get either the Times or their local papers, and as a result, they've already come across a lot of stories elsewhere.

Mr. JONATHAN KAUFMAN (Editor, Wall Street Journal Saturday edition): So when we do write about it, it's got to be so good and so compelling that our readers will take the time to read it.

FOLKENFLIK: Jonathan Kaufman edits the front page for the Journal's Saturday edition.

Mr. KAUFMAN: And, in fact, a friend of mine, who's now at the Washington Post, has a joke where he says that the Wall Street Journal wins Pulitzer Prizes for things we're not supposed to cover, which actually is true if you look at it. You know, we've won Pulitzer Prizes for writing about race, for writing about cancer, for writing about AIDS. These are not traditional business topics.

FOLKENFLIK: Rupert Murdoch has big plans for the Journal and for the rest of Dow Jones, relying heavily on its business coverage to help propel a new financial cable channel and to expand his reach abroad. Murdoch has promised the Wall Street Journal would remain the nation's premier business publication, but the newspaper's journalists and its readers count on it to be a lot more than that.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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