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War at the Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle To Control an American Business Empire Hardcover – May 12, 2010
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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.
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
In her new book, Ellison, a former reporter for the business newspaper, describes how the clever, persistent Aussie media maven Rupert Murdoch wrested the crown jewel of American newspapers from an outgunned Bancroft family. Ellison celebrates the $5 billion deal cooked up by Murdoch and his partners, and gets in a few body blows against the stodgy New York Times, the financially crippled American media and business world, and the snobby British print world as well throughout this take-no-prisoners chronicle. Some of Ellison's sharpest barbs are reserved for the hapless, dysfunctional Bancroft clan, revealing dark family secrets involving curious sexual habits, shifting alliances, and addictions, but the controversial Murdoch emerges as the bold business maverick and conquering media mogul. In the end, Ellison offers a close look into a raw, aggressive power in international commerce. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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That's the test that Sarah Ellison's gracefully-written and impeccably-researched chronicle of the battle for the control of and the soul of the Wall Street Journal passed with flying colors this past weekend. True, I had a vested interest in the subject, given that I spent the better part of 14 years toiling at the same newspaper (leaving 8 years ago) and knowing many of the characters involved. Ultimately, this book is itself a tribute to the "old" Wall Street Journal -- a detailed, careful saga that avoids getting bogged down in arcane details about family trusts and the newspaper's history and focusing on "showing" rather than "telling" the reader how a dysfunctional family, an ambitious media mogul and perhaps willfully blind newspaper editors collided, producing a dramatic change in the nature of a century-old American institution, The Wall Street Journal. Ellison presents everything from inside glimpses of the 'morning meeting' at the paper (complete with the posturing and game-playing of ambitious bureau chiefs and editors) to an inside glimpse of Rupert Murdoch's life, from slavish bellboys to the interior of his private plane. It's business journalism at its best; a worthy heir to books such as Barbarians at the Gate and Den of Thieves.
Ellison is a former Journal reporter who had longstanding relationships with many of the key players in the drama; she also got access to the Murdoch family and to Robert Thomson, Murdoch's new lieutenant at the helm of the Journal, as well as to key members of the Bancroft family. The result is a well-rounded narrative that doesn't skip over any twist or turn in the story of how the Wall Street Journal went from being a "public trust" in the hands of the Bancrofts to a feather in the cap of Rupert Murdoch, who had long coveted it. At its heart, the story is one of an impossible conundrum that now faces every newspaper in America: how to remain profitable in the Internet era. Under the Bancrofts, the Journal may have retained its cherished independence, but without the resources to undertake the projects that made it famous. Under Murdoch, the future remains murky; the resources are there, but is there a vision? One of the best features of this book is that Ellison lays out the evidence and allows readers to judge for themselves, although her conclusion hints at her own view of the way that subtle changes that fall short of editorial interference can still result in a very different kind of newspaper product.
Even if you're not enamored of business books, this could be the one to change your mind. The portraits in words of the various players, from JP Morgan Chase dealmaker Jimmy Lee, with his slicked-backed hair and his suspenders, to the haggard-looking Marcus Brauchli, ousted WSJ managing editor, are impeccable and often either hilarious or poignant.
Very highly recommended.
Full disclosure: Ellison was a colleague, although we never worked together on stories/projects. Neither she nor her publisher provided me with a copy of this book, nor did they solicit a review.
I think Ellison's descriptions of the Bancroft family and Rupert Murdoch and the effects of both on the paper's culture were excellent. Many characters presented in this story seem like a blur to me now. It was difficult for me to keep up with the constant introduction of new characters and maintain my pace through this book.
Like some other reviewers here, this disclosure: I'm also a former employee of The Journal (are we the only ones reading the book? I hope not). I worked there under what I guess would be considered the "old days," and worked with several of the folks mentioned and interviewed for this book. In my opinion, this passage from Ellison's book is one of the best short descriptions of the "old" Journal that I've read: "Traditionally, the paper had been a newsroom of midwesterners in the center of New York, a group happy to exist outside the glamor of the city. The Journal was well read in flyover country and in the investment banking corridors of Wall Street, but among the literati and the culture set of Manhattan, it was viewed with a certain disdain, almost as if it were a trade paper. The reporters and editors often thought that was part of the beauty of the place. The Journal told its readers stories they never knew they wanted to hear...Murdoch wanted to wipe all that away."
Well, he has. Like most readers of the Journal, I'd noticed lots of incremental changes since the ownership battle, but never really stepped back to take a look at the overall picture. Now reading this book has caused me to take a step back with some perspective, read through the most recent issue, and realize that the "old" Journal might, indeed, be gone. It's now a very good general national newspaper, with a great business section, and other sections (sports, the arts, etc.) that are still below the standards of the New York Times but coming along quickly.
As I write this, one of the biggest business news stories of recent times is unfolding (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill) and I keep waiting for the in-depth, Journalesque reconstruction of events, or in-depth interviews with oil patch technical experts. I'm not really seeing it -- I'm seeing the Journal follow the pack. In fact, the 2 or 3 best stories I've read in recent days have been in The Times, not the Journal. Overall, I'm not sure that makes the Journal a *worse* newspaper, just different -- newsier, more mainstream, and less interested in covering business and corporations in depth. What's missing? The stories that "readers never knew they wanted to hear."
One of the concerns with the Murdoch takeover -- a concern that the reporters of the Journal obsessed over in their coverage -- is whether Murdoch would bring a conservative, Fox-news-like slant to news coverage under his ownership. I'll let journalism professors figure that one out (Murdoch hates journalism professors, by the way, according to this book). But the book itself claims that under new ownership, management is now hyper-focused on rooting out liberal bias from the paper, excising quotes from "liberal" sources and playing up the opinions and "facts" presented by conservative sources (for example, one of the lead quotes in the obituary of Edward Kennedy was supplied by Rush Limbaugh).
What this book resolves for me, though, is the question of whether there was any alternative to the Murdoch takeover. Going way back to the "old days," it was always pretty clear that the management Dow Jones could go in two directions: 1. Go much harder and deeper into the world of electronic financial and business news gathering or 2. Become a better, newsier, flashier "general interest" newspaper.
Choice number 1 never happened: It was pretty clear that over the years Dow Jones had let the world pass it by, taking medium-sized steps to enter the electronic age, and botching several of them (like Telerate), while competitors (most specifically Reuters and Bloomberg) ran rings around it in serving the needs of the financial community. So now it's up to Murdoch and his team to pursue option number 2, turning the Journal into a general interest newspaper. It's not been a good financial decision (News Corp. has already written off most of the $5 billion that it paid to acquire Dow Jones), but it will certainly be interesting to see how it works. No longer content to be a discerning business person's "second newspaper," the Journal now aspires to be the "first," in an age when fewer and fewer people even read newspapers.
In any case -- this book is a good, streamlined retelling of the Journal story. A good book for readers who like business takeover stories; a must read for people interested in the future of journalism.