Mavericks like Murdoch a boon to the news
Journalism Chair Tony Pederson talks about The Wall Street Journal purchase
Does Rupert Murdochís purchase of The Wall Street Journal signal the end of the venerable paperís journalistic tradition? Maybe not, argues Tony Pederson, Chair of the SMU Journalism Department. Pederson has been a front-row witness to the tectonic changes in American journalism, having spent a combined 20 years as managing editor, then executive editor, of The Houston Chronicle before joining SMU in 2003. He wrote about the purchase for The Orange County Register and The Houston Chronicle. A question-and-answer with Mr. Pederson follows:
This purchase is controversial. Whatís your initial impression?
Clearly he has a worldwide media group that tends to be very conservative. Clearly he has a history of meddling in those properties. And he is buying this for a specific purpose. With his new financial channel thatís going to come on this fall, he wants to brand Dow Jones & Company as a part of his station. Itís not a bad idea Ė itís at the heart of (media) convergence. Itís at the heart of what people in media need to do to survive long term.
He is subject to a lot of criticism Ė some justified, some not. Look at The Sunday Times and The Times of London: there was great fear heíd destroy the integrity of those. There have been changes made and you can justify the position that the papers are not what they once were. But both are still very good newspapers. He did take the Times of London and make it a tabloid, and he is accused of aiding in the tabloidization and dumbing down of journalism in the United Kingdom and some of those charges are justified.
Still, they are very complete newspapers with an emphasis on international reporting. The Sunday Times is still spectacular in its coverage of arts and culture.
Murdoch has agreed to a series of measures designed to protect the newspaperís editorial independence from corporate interference. Is it realistic to think those measures will work?
Itís not realistic. Virtually every newspaper purchase of the past 30 years or so has been accompanied by assurances that there will be no changes. But there are always changes Ė and big changes.
Do you expect a change in the newspaperís tone and gravitas?
I really donít. I think The Wall Street Journal has a wonderful history. Itís one of the truly outstanding newspapers in the world. I think that will continue. I think Murdoch knows he has a lot at stake in terms of his reputation in buying The Wall Street Journal. I think itís probably a pretty natural thing that when you get to his age, you start to give some thought to the legacy you will leave in journalism.
Murdoch has indicated that heís not sold on the off-beat front page features that are a tradition at the Journal. Would you grieve if those disappeared?
Oh, I would. Traditionally those pieces have been some of the really fine writing in the newspaper. Just in my opinion, I think The Wall Street Journal has been the best edited newspaper thatís published in the United States. If that were to change, I think it would be a real tragedy.
Murdoch also has expressed interest in expanding the Journalís free online content to lure more advertisers. Is that likely to work, as major newspapers across the U.S. appear caught in the conundrum of shrinking print readership without a corresponding shift in readership of their online products?
On the one hand, heíll be stuck in the same conundrum that all print medium are in. But also, The Wall Street Journal has been in a unique position regarding its online presence. It has a very good online product that really is better than any other newspaper I see.
In terms of just the financial resources available and the research available online, The Wall Street Journal occupies an unusual niche. The newspaper provides online services other newspapers donít. As recently as a year ago, Murdoch was critical of his online presence. Of course he promptly went out and bought MySpace, so heís a risk taker.
Every media company I know has been screaming about doing something for younger readers and younger consumers for the past 25 years. Very few have done it. Murdoch has gone out and done it, and you have to give him credit for it.
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