'Wall Street Journal' Editor Sizes Up The Competition

Robert Thomson, managing editor of 'The Wall Street Journal'

Robert Thomson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal

The Competition's View

The newspaper industry is awash in red ink as more and more newspapers are up for sale or collapsing. In the latest spate of bad news, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune declared bankruptcy Monday.

It's a different story at The Wall Street Journal. A year after being taken over by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., the paper is expanding despite the sputtering economy, hiring reporters and doing more general-interest stories. Many say the shift is aimed squarely at another influential paper: The New York Times.

A Changing 'Journal'

Robert Thomson, the Journal's managing editor, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that the venerable business publication increased its size by four pages and is heading in new directions.

"Much of that has gone into international coverage, which has been in terrible decline elsewhere in the U.S.," Thomson said, adding that the extra space has allowed more stories about general and political news.

"It's a different kind of newspaper," he said. While Thomson insists the Journal hasn't abandoned its business readers, he said that "it's playing to its inherent strengths as a paper, which is able to report the world in a way that's far superior to the competition."

"If you look at other papers in New York that aspire to cover international affairs," he said, "it's sort of a roving searchlight — when they focus it on a country, that country's important. But that's not really how the world works."

Two Heavyweights With Long Reach

In a separate interview, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said his paper has nothing to worry about — from either the digital revolution or The Wall Street Journal.

Keller says the Journal has yet to put its new identity in focus, citing speculation after Murdoch bought publisher Dow Jones that the paper would soon challenge the Gray Lady in its sports and cultural coverage.

"In hindsight, I think a lot of that was bluster," Keller said. "They may have found a lot of readers were a little confused by — what is this, The Wall Street Journal that's trying to be the New York Times?"

The Journal, Keller says, is "less of a competitive threat now than it was two years ago."

Thomson would almost certainly disagree. In his view, he says, a weakened newspaper industry means that "an investment of a dollar in news coverage now will get you a greater return than at any time in history."

"There's no doubt that we're filling a void there, and I'd like to think it's a very profitable void," Thomson said.

And the Journal, unlike many other newspapers, can rely on more outlets — and revenue sources — to support its enterprise.

"You think in terms of the cost of content as a once-only expense," Thomson said. "And the potential revenue of content is how much you're able to repurpose that."

As for how much money the Journal needs to make in order for Murdoch to feel that his investment has been a good one, Thomson would not go into specifics. But he says the paper — and Dow Jones — must live up to their potential.

"Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal have to make money to prove that they're relevant," Thomson said. "Because if you're not relevant, you're irrelevant. And irrelevance is unsustainable."

Checking In With Murdoch

Thomson said he speaks with Murdoch regularly, "a couple times a day," and that they discuss themes and trends that may appear in the Journal.

Murdoch, he says, is "an expert" on putting out a newspaper. "Whether it's the size of a headline or the crop of a photograph, he's unafraid to express an opinion — and he's quite entitled to express an opinion."

And disagreements are allowed, Thomson said. "Of all the people I've worked for, as a journalist, he has given me the greatest autonomy — and therefore the greatest freedom for the Journal."

Asked if that means he can say "no" to his boss, Thomson said, "That means you can have an argument if you like. And you can certainly say no."

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