This is a tale about big business, an imploding dynasty, a mogul at war, and a deal that sums up an era of change. The main character, rocked by feuding factions and those who would remake it, is the Wall Street Journal, which affects the thoughts, votes, and stocks of two million readers daily. Sarah Ellison, while at the Journal, won praise for covering the $5 billion acquisition that transformed the pride of Dow Jones and the estimable but eccentric Bancroft family into the jewel of Rupert Murdoch's kingdom. Here she expands her work, using her knowledge of the paper and its people to go deep inside the landmark transaction, as no outsider has or can, and also far beyond it, into the rocky transition when Murdoch's crew tussled with old Journal hands and geared up for battle with the New York Times. With access to all the players, Ellison moves from newsrooms (where editors duel) to estates (where the Bancrofts go at it like the Ewings). She shows Murdoch, finally, for who he is--maneuvering, firing, undoing all that the Bancrofts had protected. Here is a superlative account of a deal with reverberations beyond the news, told with the storytelling savvy that transforms big stories into timeless chronicles of American life and power.
Amazon Exclusive: William D. Cohan Reviews War at the Wall Street Journal
William D. Cohan is an online columnist for the New York Times, appears on NPR, CNN, Bloomberg TV, CNBC, and is a frequent contributor to Vanity Fair, Fortune, the Washington Post, ArtNews, The Financial Times, and the Daily Beast. Cohan is the bestselling author of The Last Tycoons and House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street . Read his guest review of War at the Wall Street Journal:
In War at The Wall Street Journal, Sarah Ellison, formerly a media reporter at the old Journal--the one we all knew and loved--has written a gripping narrative account of what happened to that gem of American Journalism and why the controlling Bancroft family agreed in 2007 to sell the paper to Rupert Murdoch, the Darth Vader of Journalism. She should know: She was part of the team that covered the story when she was at the Journal, which she has since left.
Ellison's story focuses on three sets of protagonists--none of them particularly admirable--who fought over and ultimately carved up the carcass of the Dow Jones Company, the Journal's parent company. First, are the highly dysfunctional and completely unappealing members of the extended Bancroft family--and their equally unappealing attorneys--that for years fought among themselves and seemed content to allow Dow Jones to be mismanaged and to fall into disarray. Second is the management team--led by Peter Kann and his ambitious, insensitive wife, Karen Elliott House--that allowed the Journal's financial performance to deteriorate year after year, while doing an admirable job keeping the journalistic standards high and the product enviable. Only Kann's successor as CEO, Rich Zannino, seemed to have the slightest clue that his job was to create shareholder value. Finally, comes Murdoch himself, who stopped at nothing to get his long-sought prize--including agreeing to an oversight board for the Journal he quickly ignored--and paying the whopping sum of $5.6 billion to get it (including the assumption of $600 million of debt on Dow Jones' books.)
Ellison's book does a fine job of revealing the subtext for Murdoch's unbridled ambition to get control of The Wall Street Journal: He wants to use the paper to take down, if he can, The New York Times and the Sulzberger family that owns it. He seems to have a special antipathy for Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the company's Chairman and the paper's publisher. In that regard, the fact that the entire newspaper industry is on its back and may never recover its former financial glory appears to have given Murdoch his opening. In pursuit of the Times and its national audience, Murdoch has made the new Wall Street Journal unrecognizable and its daily product undistinguished. He also has announced that he has hired a newsroom full of reporters in New York City to start covering local news stories in order to compete directly with the Times on its home turf. Curiously, Murdoch and his hand-picked management team are so delighted by their new toy, they have become blinded by what has been lost--editorially speaking--at the paper. "We produced a better paper," Ellison quotes Murdoch saying at the end of her book. "It's as simple as that."
By then, though, the reader knows Murdoch's statement is patently untrue and just more of his bullying bluster. But two other ironies have also been revealed: One, that given the ongoing distress in the journalism industry, the reporters at the paper are just happy to have jobs that continue to pay them to do--in some form anyway--what they love. And, second, that the big winners in the saga are the bumbling Bancrofts, who walked off with Murdoch's $5 billion and have scattered to the winds. A little more than a year after he bought Dow Jones, News Corp. took a $2.8 billion write-off, effectively conceding that Murdoch had paid twice as much as the company turned out to be worth.
(Photo © Frank E. Schramm III)
A Q&A with Sarah Ellison, Author of War at The Wall Street Journal
(Photo © Greg Martin)
From Publishers Weekly
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