Who among us has not been intrigued by what goes on behind closed doors at our office? Ever wondered what your boss was really thinking? Curious about the dynamics of your organization’s board and ownership? Or perhaps speculated about compensation questions?
Sarah Ellison got a chance to explore those and many other issues at her own employer when she undertook to write War at the Wall Street Journal. Originally assigned to cover the sale of her own newspaper to Rupert Murdoch for the pages of the Journal, Ellison ultimately expanded her project to be a book about the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the sale of Dow Jones to News Corp.
This book has a little bit of everything. There’s family intrigue as the author shines some light on the dynamics of the Bancroft family. The dynamics of this motley group of wealthy media heirs alone makes for interesting reading – yet it is just one piece of the story. The portrait of the tension between money, legacy, and pride maintains a sense of mystery even as we know the eventual outcome.
Ultimately, the family history gives way to hardball business wrangling. Here we get an inside look at the mechanics of big bucks mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street. The maneuvering of investment bankers, lawyers, board members, executives and others shows everyone looking out for their own interests – some with more success than others.
Most do not come out looking good at the end of the day. There are no true heroes. Rupert Murdoch himself is a stereotypical rich, old, pampered mogul. The perception of the Australian billionaire media titan as a cutthroat, scheming media titan is reinforced. Dow Jones CEO Peter Kann is an ineffectual former journalist desperate to hang on to the paper’s history. His successor, Rich Zannino, seems to be a young numbers wonk in over his head and eager to sell and run. The Bancroft family members are one part naïve, one part greedy, and a final part spoiled. Ellision’s fellow reporters and editors at the Wall Street Journal seem detached from modern media reality and certain of their own superiority as journalists. Marcus Brauchli, the successor to long-serving and well-respected Managing Editor Paul Steiger, is portrayed as largely ineffectual because he spends so much time trying to please his new master but ultimately fails, like so many before him, to win Murdoch’s affection.
Once the Bancroft family and Dow Jones board comes to the only reasonable conclusion and agrees to sell to Rupert Murdoch for more than $5 billion – about double the prevailing market value at the time of the offer – the story changes to one of a newspaper company trying to succeed in a new media world.
It becomes clear at this point in the book that Murdoch and his minions at News Corp don’t have the unmistakably clear competitive vision that their reputation might suggest. We see Murdoch himself admitting he can argue both sides of the question of what type of stories make most sense in the WSJ. His editorial maven, Robert Thomson, becomes Managing Editor for the paper but doesn’t seem to be able to explain exactly what he wants to do.
When it comes to the Big Question of online media – to charge for content or not – Murdoch flip-flops. First he argues for all wsj.com content to be free; then when presented with financial data from the bean counters at Dow Jones, he reverses course. As we know, today he is a powerful advocate for online subscription fees.
War at the Wall Street Journal makes for an interesting read if you’re interested in business, media, or family dynasties. Definitely worth picking up or downloading a copy.