MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The news that the Justice Department is preparing wide-ranging subpoenas in the News Corp case was first disclosed by the Wall Street Journal. It is, of course, owned by News Corp and Rupert Murdoch considers it the jewel in his crown. The Journal has not been directly linked to any journalistic misconduct, but as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the scandal has raised questions about how the paper has changed under Murdoch's ownership.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: From the moment Murdoch strode into the newsroom of the Wall Street Journal three-and-a-half years ago, he has cast an inescapable shadow.
Mr. ALAN MURRAY (Deputy Manager Editor, Wall Street Journal): Oh, I think all of us at the time the deal was announced were anxious what it might mean.
FOLKENFLIK: That's says Alan Murray, a deputy managing editor at the Wall Street Journal and executive editor of the paper's online operations.
Mr. MURRAY: What News Corp's control of The Wall Street Journal would mean, would it in any way affect the independence of the news department? Would we somehow be forced to carry some other corporate agenda that News Corp had, but none of that's happened.
FOLKENFLIK: But there have been some real changes. The Wall Street Journal's newsroom moved from the financial center near ground zero, to News Corp's headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. Murdoch and two handpicked editors from his Times of London decided to go head-to-head with The New York Times, which means it now publishes new sections about New York City life and leisure. That's been an investment of many millions.
Sarah Ellison was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal for a decade who wrote a book about the paper's $5 billion takeover by News Corp. She said the new top editor, Robert Thomson, a trusted Murdoch lieutenant, brought a new metabolism.
Ms. SARAH ELLISON (Former Reporter, The Wall Street Journal): He felt like you needed to be hungry and you needed to be breaking news and you needed to be sort of in the trenches every day aggressively pushing forward on whatever story it was that you were chasing. It's much more of a focus on breaking the story of the day.
FOLKENFLIK: There were gripping headlines, big photographs, shorter stories, all in an effort to draw in readers. More politics and international news, less, in her opinion, of the paper's vaunted watchdog coverage of corporations and Wall Street. And there were also fewer of the elegant front page features beloved by writers and scorned by Murdoch.
Alan Murray says the Journal has lost nothing and is gunning for new readers.
Mr. MURRAY: And when News Corp came in, they made a conscious decision to say, look, a lot of these papers are declining rapidly. I mean, they've become shadows of what they were in many of these urban markets. And yet there are people who still want to get a print newspaper delivered on their driveway every day and if we expand our general news coverage, we can be that paper.
FOLKENFLIK: Murdoch's acquisition has irritated some investors - the Journal's now valued at half of its purchase price - but circulation is up and the company says the Journal has returned to profitability, though News Corp does not break down the figures.
Back in 2007, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera was among those who actively endorsed the takeover, saying the media mogul's deep pockets would protect the paper. But now, in light of the scandal, Nocera has written a mea culpa. Here's what he wrote in a recent column, read here by one of the NPR players.
Unidentified Man: (Reading) The Journal was turned into a propaganda vehicle for its owner's conservative views. That's half the definition of Fox-ification. The other half is that Murdoch's media outlets must shill for his business interests. With the News of the World scandal, the Journal has now shown itself willing to do that too.
FOLKENFLIK: Several former Journal staffers pointed me to news articles that referred to the assault on business by the Obama White House. But other current staffers, who spoke on condition they were not named, say such thumbprints are few and fewer now than at first.
Sarah Ellison says the new editors from the U.K. brought The Times of London's conservative take on the American media.
Ms. ELLISON: But they were correcting for what they perceived as a liberal bias. And so I think that that's something of a dangerous mission, and I think there were times when they over-corrected for that - there's no question.
FOLKENFLIK: More tellingly, Ellison says, the Journal has been slow off the mark in covering the scandal involving the News Corp tabloid News of the World. That's particularly notable because the Journal's publisher, Les Hinton, had to quit last week because he was the chief executive of News Corp's British newspaper group when the incidents are alleged to have occurred. He also gave testimony to Parliament that proved to be untrue. Hinton has denied knowing of any of the wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, in a blistering editorial, the Journal blamed the scandal on the failure of police to investigate and its journalistic competitors for over-hyping the story.
Sarah Ellison says the paper has an opportunity.
Ms. ELLISON: And what I hope is that The Wall Street Journal can show through its reporting in its news pages that it really is still holding on to its DNA, that in a story like this - even when it's about their corporate parent - that they can really get to the bottom of it.
FOLKENFLIK: In recent days, the coverage has gotten appreciably more aggressive, including today's scoop.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
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