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War at the Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle To Control an American Business Empire Hardcover – May 12, 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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Product Description
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

Q: How did this book come about?

A: I was covering the media at the Wall Street Journal when Rupert Murdoch made his bid for the paper. The story became an epic saga, clearly great material for a book.

Q: What was it like writing about your former employer?

A: My ten years at the Journal gave me a unique perspective on this story. I knew the institution and its people so well. I hope it made my portrait of the paper more vivid. In some ways the transition from being an employee to an outsider writing about the company was made easier by the time I spent reporting on the story while still at the paper. That was challenging; once I took leave and started writing the book, the lines were more demarcated. At that point I was just doing what I had learned to do during my years as a reporter.

Q: Why did Murdoch want to buy the WSJ?

A: He loves newspapers. He covets the influence and power that come with owning the Journal. It is the most powerful business paper in the most powerful city in the most powerful country in the world. He wants to knock the New York Times off its perch as the paper that influences the cultural and political conversation in this country. The Journal is his weapon for doing that.

Q: How has the paper changed?

A: Murdoch has turned it into a news-driven general-interest newspaper and moved it away from being a business franchise.

An interesting contrast is that the Journal used to actively avoid salacious general-interest news. In 1993, the Journal famously didn't report on Lorena and John Bobbitt for a month and a half, even as the news blanketed the pages of other papers. Then, finally, the paper broke its silence with a long profile of the urologist who operated on John Bobbitt. That was the only mention of the Bobbitts in the Journal that year. Under Murdoch, the paper would have covered that story every step of the way, like everybody else.

And it ran huge photos of Tiger Woods on the front page numerous times since his marital scandal broke, something that would have been impossible at the Journal under the previous owners.

Q: Is the paper better or worse than it used to be?

A: I think it's lost something that made it unique. Reporters at the paper now write stories that are much more similar to what journalists at a lot of other papers are writing. But Murdoch is committed to the paper, and the Bancrofts, in the latter years of their ownership, were not. So the Journal's survival is more secure under Murdoch than it was under the Bancrofts.

Interestingly, as good a businessman as Murdoch is supposed to be, the Journal is losing more money under him than it was previously. He's willing to sustain great losses for a paper he loves, which is good for the paper's staff but bad for News Corp.'s shareholders.

Q: Why is this important?

A: The Journal is the highest-circulation newspaper in the country and affects the way people think about everything from whom they'll vote for to what stocks they'll buy to whether or not they'll support a political candidate.

Q: How is the New York Times reacting?

A: The New York Times is exceedingly anxious about Murdoch's presence at the Journal. After he took over, they set up a war room of sorts to deal with his threats. Both the Journal and the Times are running the equivalent of attack ads directed at the other. (In one particularly bizarre twist, the Journal recently featured a photo of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in an article about effeminate-looking men.) In the first scene of my book, Murdoch tells Sulzberger, "Let the battle begin!" Three years later, the gloves are off.

Q: Who is winning the biggest newspaper war in generations?

A: We don't know yet. The battle has just started. Murdoch has politicized the Journal. It could end up that conservatives read the Journal and liberals read the Times, which is fitting in the highly polarized political climate of today. It seems we can't even share a paper.

(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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547152434
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547152431
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,328,528 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
You know a book is really good when... you are on an express subway train and you don't realize you've passed your stop until it pulls out of the station. And you don't even mind that it's going to take you an extra 40 minutes to get home, because that will give you more time to dig into the book...

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.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book for newspaper lovers. The story of Rupert Murdoch's takeover of the Wall Street Journal ought to be written by Sarah Ellison, the Journal reporter who covered that saga as it occurred in 2007-08. Too bad about the clunky title. It's a fine explainer, especially for those of us who eagerly followed what happened, but could not quite keep track of the twists and turns in real time, nor make sense of the daft dynamics among the principal owners, the Bancroft family. Ellison lays it out, stenciling in the necessary background, and drawing out the characters who make it come alive. She portrays Peter Kann, a journalistic hero, as an incompetent CEO whose skills as an executive ran to pacifying the owners and promoting his wife. Rich Zannino, the finance guy who took over, comes across as indifferent to the newspaper's mission and utterly clueless about journalism. And best of all is Murdoch himself, captured here in all his glorious contradiction - brilliant media strategist, gossip obsessive, elite-hating outsider, inconsiderate father, gracious conversationalist, and hard-knuckled publisher of loud, second-rate newspapers all over the world.

I have a slanted view of this history. I once worked for a mediocre newspaper in Hong Kong and watched as Murdoch bought it and sent in his henchmen, who kept it mediocre. More important, I knew Marcus Brauchli, maybe the most poignant figure in this book, as an energetic journalist and supreme man-about-town in Shanghai when we worked there in the last century. I cheered when he became Managing Editor of the Journal, and worried about him when Murdoch's bid became public just afterward. Brauchli comes across accurately in this book as a savvy workhorse who essentially outsmarts his competitors as he climbs the ladder.
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An interesting book and a quick, engaging read. The first half covers the takeover bid by Rupert Murdoch for Dow Jones, principally on how the Bancroft family dealt with it. The second half covers the Journal post-takeover and the many changes that have occurred. The author is a compelling writer and clearly had full access to most of the key players. It was not my imagination that the Journal has changed more in the past few years than it did in my prior 15 years of reading it.
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Author Sarah Ellison rose to the tremendous challenge of producing the best book available on the Murdoch purchase of The Wall Street Journal. In some ways this story represents America. The paper won the Pulitzer Prize 33 times, yet succumbed to loss of vision of its inheritors combined with the fact that its industry is dying. It's editorial section lost its shine within about 4 months.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Readers appalled by the continuing decline of the news media will appreciate this well written and well researched account of Rupert Murdoch's takeover of the Wall Street Journal.

The author, a former reporter for the WSJ, had excellent access to many sources at the paper, as well as the staff at Murdoch's News Corporation and the members of the Bancroft family, longtime owners of the journal.

Basically it's no mystery how the Australian media barracuda won his prey: he put up such a huge wad of money that the family just couldn't say no, especially at a time when the circulation and ad revenue of so many newspapers are dropping like flies in the face of the internet.

As another review of this book notes, some of the Bancroft reporting here almost reads like a tawdry episode of "Dallas" or "Dynasty." In-fighting, drug use, and a wide-ranging cast of characters make for lively reading.

Indeed, one of the challenges the author mostly overcomes is helping the reader keep the characters straight. She does this with the continuing use of descriptive phrases, reminding readers who is who as the story progresses.

Ultimately one must wonder if any newspaper mogul since William Randolph Hearst has done as much damage to America and the world as Murdoch. The man certainly knows how to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and the epilogue of the book reveals how his right-wing politics have already contaminated one of America's most trustworthy and prestigious journals beyond all redemption.

This detailed account is another sobering reminder of the corrosive misuse of wealth and power, and one hopes that an Orson Welles will rise to the challenge of revealing Murdoch on the silver screen for the dark force he is. Until then, this book gives a pretty telling idea.
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