When newspapers fight…

It looks, and sounds petty.

Gideon Rachman wonders why a US paper “should devote months of reporting time to digging out a relatively obscure scandal about the press secretary to the British prime minister.” Scandal = “The chief spin doctor of David Cameron…encouraged reporters to break the law by hacking into telephone messages while he was editing a national newspaper, according to allegations in the New York Times.”

His answer: Murdoch (say it in an Australian accent and it sounds positively sinister).

The News of the World, the paper Coulson edited, is part of Murdoch’s News International stable. Murdoch has bought the Wall Street Journal with the express purpose of taking on and routing the New York Times, a paper that he heartily dislikes. The battle between the Times and Murdoch’s Journal is bitter and personal. How satisfying therefore, for the New York Times to unearth a damaging scandal in some corner of the Murdoch empire.

It reminds me of an article I saw ages ago. Vanity Fair’s Murdoch to Sulzberger [NYT’s publisher]: You Are a Girly Man:

It’s not just that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t like Arthur Sulzberger, or doesn’t think he’s a serious newspaper publisher. It’s that he thinks he’s weak—girly. Sulzberger—“young Arthur”—was a frequent subject during the many hours I talked to Murdoch when I waswriting his biography. Sulzberger was always, for Murdoch, a punch line. Murdoch even mimicked him in a way to suggest … well … a certain lack of manhood.

Well, on the front page of the Journal’s Weekend section this morning is a feature on how women from healthier populations prefer feminine-looking men. The piece is illustrated with a grid showing facial features of such feminine-looking men..

 

There is, in the bottom image of the lower quadrant of a male face, an unmistakable—if you pay attention to such things—dimple and odd right ear.

Without a doubt, the Wall Street Journal has selected Arthur Sulzberger as a prime example of its idea of a feminine-looking man.

Pure coincidence?

Murdoch often uses the editorial power of his papers to pursue his business goals. Foremost on his agenda is to maul The New York Times. Murdoch believes that one advantage he has in going after the Times is that Sulzberger is so easy to play and rile up—Murdoch once, with me, used puppet strings to refer to Sulzberger—and that Murdoch has a special understanding for how to get under Sulzberger’s skin. In the past, Murdoch has taken particular delight when the New York Post’s “Page Six” has ridiculed Sulzberger—with Sulzberger calling Murdoch personally to protest. “Whinging” is the word Murdoch uses for Sulzberger’s calls.

So just imagine what Young Arthur felt this morning when he saw the lower quadrant of his face in the Journal representing the archetypal girly-man.

This is a psychological warfare side of what’s going to be a very nasty newspaper war.

You can read more in a new Vanity Fair post:

As the Times’s circulation drops, Sulzberger tells people that his goal is not to be the largest-circulation paper in the country, which theJournal now is, but rather the “thought leader,” Ellison reports. She writes that Murdoch’s goal, aside from bragging rights, is to achieve that very distinction. When Ellison asks Sulzberger how he would define “winning” for The New York Times, he couldn’t sound more bloodless, she reports. “Winning for this institution is successfully transforming a print-based enterprise into a fully functioning print and digital multi-platform enterprise that has good profitability and good growth,” he says. Losing would be “failing to do those things.”

According to Keller, Murdoch’s newspaper wars “tend to look like demolition derbies. Nobody really wins, but there is a lot of carnage.” Keller points not only to The Times of London’s war with The Daily Telegraph but also to the New York Post’s battles with Mortimer Zuckerman’s Daily News. “Can you say he won either of those wars?” Keller asks Ellison. “You can’t say he raised the standards or the I.Q. of those publications.”

In a conversation about Pulitzers, Sulzberger rolls his eyes, telling Ellison that he knows what Rupert says, that he doesn’t care about winning them. “People who don’t win prizes generally say” that, he says. “But what they do care about is peer recognition. Because at the end of the day, that’s how we judge our effectiveness. That’s what the Pulitzers are. It’s our peers saying these are the great pieces of journalism in this period of time. And you know … ,” he says, pausing meaningfully. “You’ve known the results over the last few years.” Sulzberger is so coy and oblique, Ellison writes, that it takes her a moment to realize that he is pointing out that the Journal hasn’t won a Pulitzer since Murdoch bought the paper.

Sulzberger says he runs into Murdoch from time to time and the meetings are cordial, and describes a scene at a recent dinner at Mayor Bloomberg’s for David Cameron. Sulzberger says that in his introduction the mayor said something to the effect of, “‘Mr. Prime Minister, I hope you caught that wonderful New York Times front-page story on all the tremendous things you’re doing in Britain.’” According to Ellison, Sulzberger smiles, almost giggles, as he recounts the moment, saying that he looked right at Rupert. Sulzberger frowns in his best grumpy-Murdoch impression. “Rupert owns The Times of London, The Sun, The Wall Street Journal. He helped elect this guy and here he is with all of his peers in New York, and it’s The New York Times that’s being lauded by Mike Bloomberg! It was a hysterical moment.”

Then there’s this from Andrew Neil:

Andrew Neil, who edited Murdoch’s Sunday Times, tells Ellison that he feels like “Americans have this patrician attitude that they have a God-given right to produce these boring newspapers and not be challenged to do it. The New York Times really thinks it’s the BBC”—or, more aptly, “the PBS of newsprint.” He goes on: “So, that’s what gets Murdoch’s juices going. He sees”—and here Neil pauses for emphasis and speaks the following words slowly and pointedly—“a fat pig there for the taking.” Ever in need of a foil, although the British class structure doesn’t exist here in America, Murdoch has identified The New York Times as the epitome of an entrenched elite, and according to Neil, the personification of what he disdains is Arthur Sulzberger Jr. “He’s always wanted to do this, but he’s been a general without an army. He had nothing to take The New York Times on with,” says Neil. Now, with the Journal behind him, “he’s got his army to march on the citadel.”

And:

“I read the Journal a little less now. I find that I can skim it in a way I couldn’t before. If the Journal is gaining market share I’d guess it is more at the expense of USA Today than the Times,New York Times executive editor Bill Keller tells Vanity Fair writer Sarah Ellison. Of the Greater New York section, which the Journal launched as a direct competitor to the Times, Keller says: “It’s a small-town news section in a big city.”

Which links to what the Columbia Journalism Review calls “the anglo-ization of The Wall Street Journal.

They argue that Murdoch’s involvement with the WSJ is leading to a retreat from “sophisticated in-depth reporting” as is the tradition of major American newspapers including the Journal. It is instead moving to a newsier model with “shorter and more alluring” stories without “the risk of wasting the reader’s time".

This is an Anglo-Australian newspaper model—straight, wire-service-type business news coupled with extensive and often smart analysis inside.

That’s fine, except what’s lost in this scenario is what makes American newspapers distinct from and superior to their Anglo-Australian counterparts: fully developed features, investigations, and just plain original reporting—that is reporting that takes longer than a day.

These stories aren’t about deals, typically.

They do more than report what some institution did yesterday.

They don’t offer warmed-over political analysis you can get anywhere.

The American model offers—requires—the kind of reporting that won The Washington Post three of its six Pulitzer Prizes this year: investigations of deplorable conditions at Walter Reed hospital, Vice President Cheney’s behind-the-scenes influence, and unaccountable security contractors in Iraq.

Prizes aside, it is also a form that American readers across the country have understandably come to expect, indeed demand.

It is why the Charlotte Observer embarked on a massive project—yes, it took a year—exploring soaring foreclosure rates in its communities.

It’s why the Palm Beach Post spent two years—two llamas worth, by Thomson’s metric—exploring corrupt land deals involving local public officials.

It’s why the Los Angeles Times scrutinized U-Haul’s unsafe practices.

It’s just, if you are an American newspaper, what you do. For me, it’s the key part.

Read all about them on The Washington Post’s inaugural Top Ten Investigations list.

For purely selfish reasons, I think a newspaper should just have “the news” and very good analysis. If I’m going to be buying one or subscribing for one-a-day, I best be able to finish it. Otherwise, I’d just feel guilty; everything else can come in a magazine.

I like the FT, for the reasons above: short, sharp news stories and amazing opinion writers (especially Martin Wolf) and if I need to see any huge investigatory works I can get it elsewhere. For instance, I downloaded the Washington Post onto my Kindle to read their Top Secret America project (to be honest, I just took advantage of the 14-day free trial). I also subscribe to The Economist which has quite a lot of informative pieces (see this week’s briefing on Brazilian agriculture and the lessons for world food security), Foreign Policy and The Atlantic on Kindle. And there’s the internet…

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