Monday, May 26, 2008

Murdoch names insider as new Wall Street Journal editor

Robert Thomson has named as the new managing editor of the News Corp owned Wall Street Journal. Melbourne-born Thomson was the editor of The Times (London) and in his new role will hold the joint roles of editor-in-chief of Dow Jones and managing editor of the Journal, its flagship publication. The move is seen as a change to the Journal's institutional culture with Thomson a proven candidate as someone who will execute Rupert Murdoch’s plans faithfully.

The move had been telegraphed since December when Thomson was appointed publisher of the Journal after playing a key role in Murdoch's acquisition of the newspaper. According to News Corp, the new appointment was approved unanimously by the Wall Street Journal’s “special committee”. The committee was created to protect the Journal's editorial independence after News Corporation bought Dow Jones.

Murdoch first made his takeover move of the journal in May 2007 but was initially opposed by the Bancroft family who had controlling stake in the Dow Jones Company. But by August the company confirmed the signing of “a definitive agreement” with News Corp for a cool $5.6 billion. Murdoch expressed his gratitude at the deal: "I want to offer the Bancrofts my thanks, and an assurance that our company and my family will be equally strong custodians.”

Many articles have pointed out similarities between Thomson and his boss. The pair are close friends, share a birthday (11 March; Thomson is 30 years Murdoch’s junior) are married to Chinese women and both made their way up from the bottom in papers owned by Murdoch’s father Keith. But these similarities are superficial. This relationship is purely business. Thomson has an impeccable editorial record in three continents and is a newspaper man through and through.

47 year old Thomson started his career as a copy boy on Melbourne’s now defunct afternoon newspaper The Herald in 1979. After working as that newspaper’s Sydney correspondent, he was hired by the Sydney Morning Herald where he gained a reputation for his judicial reports. He graduated with a BA in journalism from RMIT in 1990. Thomson moved to London where he worked for the Financial Times. In 1998 where he was appointed editor of the American edition of the FT. Having narrowly failed to become overall FT editor, Thomson got the plum job of The Times editor in 2002. Under his direction The Times made the decision to go tabloid. Thomson left the Times in December 2007 to join Dow Jones.

Thomson’s appointment as managing editor became more likely after Marcus Brauchli resigned in April after just 11 months in the job. Because Brauchli resigned rather than being fired, the Journal editorial committee were unable to complain about proprietorial interference. However there seems little doubt that Brauchli was pushed to make way for a Murdoch man. Thomson has already wrought changes. The paper has increased its political coverage and broadened its opinion pages. Writing in Thomson’s former paper, the FT, John Gapper foresaw some problems for the new editor. “Journal staff are uncomfortable about Mr Murdoch’s enthusiasm for taking on the New York Times by broadening the political coverage,” he said. “Even if it does the job well, it will inevitably lose some focus.”

This point was also made by Stephen Mayne writing in Crikey in August last year as the Murdoch deal crystallised. Mayne saw Murdoch’s biggest risk as a revolt by the 2,000 Wall Street Journal journalists. According to Mayne “it would be easy for a group of them to set up a direct rival to The Journal ’s website offering and, with some capital backing from, say, a cashed-up Bancroft family, a rival paper version in the US would not be out of the question.” Thomson’s appointment as editor will be the acid test for the Journal’s reputation.

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