What's Ahead for 'The Wall Street Journal'? With the agreement on Rupert Murdoch's purchase of Dow Jones & Co. come questions about where Murdoch will take the company — and its prize newspaper, The Wall Street Journal. His News Corp. is the world's third-largest media conglomerate.
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What's Ahead for 'The Wall Street Journal'?

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What's Ahead for 'The Wall Street Journal'?

What's Ahead for 'The Wall Street Journal'?

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With yesterday's agreement for Rupert Murdoch to buy Dow Jones come many questions about where Murdoch will take the company and its priced newspaper, The Wall Street Journal. Even before the purchase, Murdoch headed the world's third largest media conglomerate. Murdoch's News Corp. owned Fox Television, the 20th Century Fox Studio, some 100 newspapers, including the Times of London and the New York Post, and the social networking site, MySpace, to name just a few of its holdings. So how does this latest $5 billion acquisition sit in?

Columnist Jon Fine has been following the deal for BusinessWeek. And, Jon, why does this make business sense for Rupert Murdoch?

Mr. JON FINE (Correspondent, BusinessWeek): Well, Rupert has a - I mean, I feel like I should put air quotes around this - but, you know, like global empire. I mean, he's got properties in Asia. He's got properties in Europe. He's got properties in Australia. And he is launching a business channel here, but just quite simply, he has a kind of, you know, portfolio of assets.

I'm trying desperately not to use the word synergy and so I won't, even though I just did. But he kind of - there's sort of a space where you can see The Wall Street Journal kind of nestling in, kind of, nicely.

BLOCK: You mentioned that the dreaded word synergy and there are any number of other ones - leverage and platform - that come to mind.

Mr. FINE: I'm trying to avoid all those desk (unintelligible), you know?

BLOCK: Oh, yeah. I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that I'm married to a Wall Street Journal reporter, and there are a lot of questions about the future of that paper and how it might change under Rupert Murdoch.

Mr. FINE: There are. It's funny, there's really no other name that you can mention to an American journalist to get their news jerking quite like Rupert Murdoch. And Rupert Murdoch, you know, let's call it what it is, he doesn't have a completely untarnished record when it comes to leaving his properties alone.

That said, News Corp. owns "The Simpsons." It owns the Fox News Channel. It owns the New York Post. And it owns The Times of London and The Australian, which is a quite good national newspaper. The idea that there is a one-size-fits-all thing, that The Wall Street Journal becomes page six or, you know, the Fox News Channel is really, you know, quite silly, the more, I guess, immediate concern is that Rupert somehow involves himself into the editorial processes of The Wall Street Journal in a way that will make it, you know, that'll be detrimental to its journalism.

But if Rupert Murdoch is a smart guy - and I do think he's a smart guy - he can probably realize that if he starts meddling in The Wall Street Journal at its raw product, he essentially destroys the value of something he just spent $5 billion on. And if that's what he does, well, then, you know, it deserves to be the first line of his obituary - he's the man who destroyed The Wall Street Journal. I think he's savvy enough not to do that.

BLOCK: The Journal's ad revenues and circulation have been flat, even though it's doing very well with paid subscriptions online. Do you think Rupert Murdoch can change that?

Mr. FINE: If you look at the timeline, the circulation and the ad revenues on flat. They have been declining. It's been marginally profitable at best. I think there's no question that there are a couple of years in this past decade, since the year 2000, where it's been unprofitable.

Rupert Murdoch can invest in The Wall Street Journal in the ways that Dow Jones can't because Dow Jones doesn't have the money to do so. But he does have money. He does have sort of a culture that's much more aggressive on the sell side and that sounds trite, but that's important because if you're an ad person at The Wall Street Journal, The Wall Street Journal depends on the dollars that you bring in. And there haven't been that many of them. And the pie from which you can draw from is shrinking.

BLOCK: I've heard a couple of things. One that, potentially, if he does bring in more ad revenues, there could be more pages for news. But he has also been quoted as saying he thinks stories are too long, especially the corky feature stories on page one.

Mr. FINE: He has said the stories on page one are too long. I made a joking blog post earlier today, where I was talking about how the absolute legacy of Rupert Murdoch is keeping this corky front-page stories. More seriously, it's not a question if there's going to be more ad revenues. He will increase news pages. He's come out and said that he wants four more pages of hard news in the paper every day. That is a significant investment. And anyone who's picked up a Wall Street Journal on a day when there's not a lot of advertising knows that some days it's really darn skinny. And those four pages, I mean, you'll notice.

BLOCK: And he'll do it regardless of whether he has the ad base to back those pages up?

Mr. FINE: Say what you will about Rupert Murdoch, and there's a lot to say about Rupert Murdoch, but if there's one single trait he has a newspaper man, is that he has been willing to lose literally tens of millions of dollars annually for a very long period of time, if he just likes the product or he thinks there's a long-term play to make here.

BLOCK: John Fine, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. FINE: My pleasure, Melissa.

BLOCK: John Fine is a media columnist with BusinessWeek.

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